Plumb Lines

June 3, 2009

Why Bother with Euphemism?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 8:46 am

The torture debate in America today is bifurcated into two groups, each of which has its own rhetoric on the issue. The first group, largely Democratic, couches waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, etc. as either independently torture, or as having the cumulative effect of torture when used in concert. The second group, largely Republican but also including the media, acknowledges that torture does exist, but that the above techniques are simply “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs). Furthermore, the second group holds to the maxim that nothing the United States can do is torture, because a fundamental tenet of the United States is that we do not torture. Teleologically, then, the United States is incapable of torture. Former President George W. Bush went on record in 2005 saying something to this effect, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had this to say to The Economist:

As a British court noted, waterboarding is not torture. Waterboarding has been routinely used to train American pilots in the military to understand what interrogation techniques they might encounter. The reference to the Khmer Rouge is the kind of moral equivalence President Reagan warned against in his “Evil Empire” speech in 1983. The Khmer Rouge killed millions of people, annihilated the Cambodian intellectuals, and was among the worst inhumane movements in the last century. The United States has used specific enhanced interrogation techniques in specific circumstances against very high-level terrorists for the purpose of saving innocent civilian lives, not for taking them.

I cannot for the life of me understand why the advocates for torturous EITs do not just call a spade a spade and man up to what they are doing. Instead of engaging in the legal tap dance that Bush 43 detailed last Friday and in the past, why not just call it torture. That may not be popular, but everyone knows that is what waterboarding is, and what it has been classified as for hundreds of years since it was known as the “water cure.”

A new poll by the AP shows that a slight majority of Americans (52%) believe torture—no description given, just torture—”is at least sometimes justified to obtain information about terrorist activities from suspects, an increase from 38 percent in 2005 when the AP last asked the question.” In light of this increasing number of Americans who think good old torture is justified, why didn’t the Bush administration, or any of the supporters of EITs/torture for that matter, just make an honest argument to the American people? Nothing binds us to our treaties, and with enough pressure I’m sure the Bush White House could have gotten the authorization for the once Republican-controlled Congress to do whatever it wanted to anyone labeled a terrorist.

Yet only a few are willing to say with any sincerity, “Yes, let’s torture all of them.” I suppose this is the nature of politics, to be unwilling to tell the truth even when the truth is evident. If they really listened to what Americans want, though, they may find the strength to advocate torture in earnest. This would not give them the moral high ground, however, but is this debate not similar to so many other moral quandaries facing America? We allow plenty of amoral and immoral things, and use the convenience of distance to absolve ourselves of any responsibility.

-Michael E. van Landingham



  1. I cannot for the life of me understand why the advocates for torturous EITs do not just call a spade a spade and man up to what they are doing.

    Then let me try to explain.

    The very word, “torture,” is a loaded word, chosen deliberately by partisan Democrats for the purpose of demonizing their opponents. Rather than illuminating the debate, it was deliberately chose to obscure it. The people who chose the word are not shocked by the practice — in fact, when it was described to them in detail, they approved it — but were eager to apply the emotionally-charged language to gain political advantage. Since perception is powerful, for Republicans to “man up”, as you so charmingly refer to it, is actually for the Republicans to willingly participate in a Democratic control game and allow their political adversaries to walk on them, in a manner not unlike the way abused spouses return to their abusers and practically beg for more. No sane person would do that.

    I suggest you read one or both of the following articles, which explain the inherent ambiguity attached to a word like “torture.” They will help you understand why the use of the word in this context actually constitutes an obfuscatory game:

    How Personal Income and CIA Interrogation Techniques Are Alike (Back Talk Blog)
    Harsh Interrogation (Plumb Bob Blog)

    The comparison you make between our use of waterboarding and the historical “water cure,” used by the Japanese in WWII, is particularly inappropriate. The Japanese used to perform the act on prisoners for four to six hours, while beating the prisoner, with their noses plugged so they would swallow as much water as possible, and then they would beat the prisoner’s stomach to make him vomit the water back up. Several men died under this treatment; they drowned, or their stomachs exploded. By contrast, the current American process has been used, on all prisoners in custody for all applications of the process, a total of less than 5 minutes. What the two practices have in common are restraint, inclination, and water. If you think that’s sufficient basis to call them the same act, then logically you should also claim that burning trash in the back yard be prosecuted under the law against arson — trash burning, involving the deliberate setting of fire, is just as similar to arson as our waterboarding is to the Japanese “water cure.” As with trash burning, there may be some reason to consider laws regulating practices like those the Bush administration used; but to equate them with the “water cure” is morally obtuse, and clearly wrong.

    Comment by philwynk — June 9, 2009 @ 7:10 am

  2. I do not believe it to be “morally obtuse and clearly wrong.” Waterboarding, even the dainty kind so described by the Justice memos, etc., still creates a situation that causes the detainee to drown. If it was not life threatening, as you and so many proponents of torture claim, then why was a doctor always standing by watching. Furthermore, the detainees had no idea of the extreme “precautions” anyone was taken, and they were subjected to other methods like stress positions, sleep deprivation, and beatings making their situation more acute. How could you waterboard someone 83 time, or 183 times for that matter, and it amount to no less than five total minutes? That adds to 266 times, so are we to assume that each session lasted only for 1.12 seconds? I doubt that. And what is the purpose of using it so many times if it worked so well? Torture is still torture no matter how long the procedure is being performed.

    My larger point is that if Americans agree with using torture, just say the government is torturing people. People can accept it. Torture should be loaded word because it is serious stuff. It is not some Orwellian tactic as you and others have claimed to call tactics outlawed by the Geneva Conventions torture. Have you seen the pictures of American troops from Viet Nam or the Philippines waterboarding captives? They are not forcing the prisoners to swallow water, as I incongruously alluded to.

    John Yoo made up the claim that only dismemberment, etc. can count as torture. What about rape? Why couldn’t we just rape prisoners or their wives to get information. And why can’t we use waterboarding on suspects as a Texas sheriff and two deputies did in the 1980s to get information? The reason is that waterboarding is and has been couched as torture and it is.

    Stop pretending there is a debate and admit that you want people tortured. The American people are on your side, and support is even growing for that opinion.


    Comment by Michael E. van Landingham — June 9, 2009 @ 7:48 am

  3. Michael,

    You clearly need to read and digest the articles to which I linked. I suspect you did not, as your argument shows no evidence of understanding how there necessarily exists a continuum of progressively harsher acts that are acceptable, and an arbitrary decision regarding when enough is enough.

    Please read them, and then come back and reassess your “any harsh act is torture in exactly the same manner” argument, which any dispassionate observer can see constitutes a deliberate refusal to engage one’s brain.

    Stop pretending there is a debate and admit that you want people tortured.

    I’ll “stop pretending” when I believe there actually is no debate, and when I actually want people tortured. I took the position I took because I sincerely believe it to be logically correct, and I believe I have sound reason on my side. So instead of losing your temper and calling me a liar, if you’ll calm yourself and reread the argument, perhaps we can have a conversation.

    You and I have a lot in common (Jewish, converted Christian, personal blogs invoking the idea of a plumb bob representing truth) and should be able to communicate. We also both have passion, which unfortunately gets in the way of communication at times.

    Comment by philwynk — June 9, 2009 @ 8:16 am

  4. I’m sorry, but I simply do not see this as a continuum issue. Why should we be prevented from going the full 100? Nothing should stop us. The plain fact is that the CIA did not have adequate experience interrogating people, and they thought they’d try some techniques on high-value detainees in order to see if they would work for future use. The FBI was both horrified and withdrew from interrogations at Gitmo because they understood that crossing the line from mental interrogation to physical contact correlated with a loss of trust between detainee and interrogator. The FBI had experience building cases and trying criminals, the CIA has experience without rules or supervision and they do not need to be accountable.

    The author(s) may off as a moral exhibitionist for believing that any amount of torture is wrong (and that’s what that scale is, a torture scale), but I am comfortable with that. Just as I do not believe in the morality of the death penalty or justifiable homicide, I do not believe in using physically abusive methods of interrogation. And should they be used I don’t see why we need a policy outlining what is okay and what is not, just allow some rogue agent to do it and don’t prosecute them. The arbitrary nature of line-drawing detailed in both posts is where people get in trouble.

    I would like you to know I didn’t call you a liar, and I’m fairly calm. I am sorry to say you wanted to torture people, but I believe, given my definition of the word, that you do. I accept that people can believe waterboarding is not torture, even if I disagree with that. I am glad we can debate this, but I want your side to understand that if America thinks torture is permissible, go ahead and go whole hog on these detainees. I won’t think it’s morally correct, but much is perpetrated by the US I do not morally agree with.

    In any event I’m glad to have a reader that cares one way or another.


    Comment by Michael E. van Landingham — June 9, 2009 @ 8:40 am

  5. The author(s) may off as a moral exhibitionist for believing that any amount of torture is wrong (and that’s what that scale is, a torture scale)

    It’s not a “torture scale,” it’s a scale of the progressive harshness of interrogation techniques, some clearly legal, some clearly too vicious, and quite a few in a gray area in the middle.

    There are techniques at the low end that are so mild that they sound like a Monty Python skit about the Spanish Inquisition. We all laughed about the Comfy Chair (they sat the prisoner in an overstuffed chair and poked her with pillows) but in fact, the interrogators at Gitmo used a La-Z-Boy recliner as a reward, and it was one of their more effective measures. The questioner in this case was often a grandmotherly female, and some prisoners would become cooperative so they could spend their interrogation time in a comfy chair talking to a sweet, old lady.

    Still want to call that “torture?” If so, defend your word choice.

    Somewhat up the scale we come to sitting the prisoner in a hard chair, under a bank of lights so he can’t see who’s asking questions. Is that “torture?” Defend your answer.

    We can continue upward, but I think the point is made; we’re not talking about “torture,” we’re talking about interrogation, and there is a ramp up the scale of harshness. Some interrogation techniques are perfectly legal, even though they’re harsh. American cops use “good cop, bad cop” techniques to trick perpetrators into telling them the truth; it has the same “carrot or stick” choice that the CIA’s interrogation techniques have, uses fear, and plays on the prisoner’s psychological weaknesses. One might call this “torture,” but every court in the world accepts it as legal.

    So, instead of using loaded words, which cause us to turn off our brains and think with our emotions, let’s use neutral words and make a sane evaluation of a program of interrogation that has succeeded at protecting the US for almost a decade without actually crossing the lines into gross inhumanity. The debate is important, interesting, and a lot less easily settled than you appear to make it.

    Comment by philwynk — June 9, 2009 @ 8:54 am

  6. Let me add this:

    And should they be used I don’t see why we need a policy outlining what is okay and what is not, just allow some rogue agent to do it and don’t prosecute them. The arbitrary nature of line-drawing detailed in both posts is where people get in trouble.

    This is far worse than what was actually done. We don’t want rogue agents at all, and we don’t want to avoid looking at the question.

    The Clinton administration took your approach, and used rendition to places that actually treated prisoners in a manner that shocks the conscience. There are several problems with this; not only does it make us accessories to real crimes, but there’s no guarantee that the government that uses the technique will share the information with us. This approach did not yield good results.

    The Bush administration refused to simply close their eyes to brutality, and accepted the responsibility of deciding for themselves what was acceptable (and under what circumstances), and what was not. This, and not the other, is what happens when we “man up.” And the results were far more satisfactory, with — this is the important point — far less brutality than was inflicted in the previous regime.

    So, no, I’m not in favor of closing our eyes and letting Finn the Impaler go for it. That’s the coward’s way out. We need to take responsibility for our choices. Interrogating bad men is a hard and painful exercise, but it must be done, and we need to be man enough to do it. Putting in place controls to prevent Finn from getting his jollies is what makes the process morally acceptable.

    Comment by philwynk — June 9, 2009 @ 9:04 am

  7. Sorry, “interrogation scale,” but in the income post the author refers to 1 being “polite questioning,” etc. If we’re line-drawing here, and that is what you would like to ask, then the line should be drawn at physically abusive techniques, especially when any combination of those could be considered torture. Even solitary confinement for long enough stretches of time is torture, mind you. So I don’t even rate “rewards” or anything innocuous like that.

    All words are loaded. That’s why police don’t call what they do “interrogation” anymore, but “interviews.” Seriously, they will ask to interview you as if they were a reporter. I don’t think that being opposed to torture is a strictly emotional response, either. Again, most Americans agree with it. I think being opposed to it is quite nuanced, as does any moral debate. To that degree, saying it is emotional to call something, anything, torture is unfair.

    Finally, you say of the interrogation program:

    a program of interrogation that has succeeded at protecting the US for almost a decade without actually crossing the lines into gross inhumanity

    What about Abu Ghraib? I’d call that gross inhumanity without any exaggeration. The soldiers were asked to “soften up” the detainees. And how do we know that the EITs have protected us–that is correlation as far as we know. (I admit, we don’t know.) Lastly, we know that the FBI had more success in interrogating Zubaydah than the CIA, and they were playing by the rules established for investigative bodies. In that respect, I would consider the CIA program to be less effective on the whole.


    Comment by Michael E. van Landingham — June 9, 2009 @ 9:09 am

  8. Good point on rendition.

    Comment by Michael E. van Landingham — June 9, 2009 @ 9:10 am

  9. physically abusive techniques, especially when any combination of those could be considered torture. Even solitary confinement for long enough stretches of time is torture, mind you.

    Did you happen to follow the link from the Plumb Bob Blog article to the case about the German policeman? He slammed a prisoner against a stone wall so hard that it left a bruise on the man’s collarbone, and threatened far worse — and obtained in seconds the location of a kidnapped boy that the man had been withholding for hours of questioning.

    The World Court convicted him of “inhuman treatment,” but issued a punishment that was nothing but a slap on the wrist. They recognized several key points in this debate — sometimes a little rough treatment is right, and does not deserve punishment, and sometimes the importance of the result mitigates harshness of the act.

    That’s my point: this is not a black/white issue, and should not be treated like one. We’re moral people faced with a difficult task: we should examine it, decide what’s acceptable and when, and handle it ourselves.

    I disagree with you generally. I don’t think all “physically abusive” techniques are necessarily off limits, especially when we can perform them with confidence that no permanent damage will be done. I do think there are limits, and I think it’s worth a discussion to agree about what those might be.

    One more point: did you notice in the Justice Dept memos that they actually devised a flexible wall so they could slam the prisoner against it without danger of bruising him, but it would make a loud noise to startle him? That’s an instance of using technology to make a potentially painful act less dangerous to the prisoner, without sacrificing effectiveness. What sort of people go to the trouble of paying an engineer to devise such a device? Why not just slam him against a real wall? We do these sorts of things because we are decent, and because we do want to remain within boundaries established by the world’s experience. In my humble estimation, this is precisely what we should be doing — discovering how we can get the information without pushing ourselves into the Dark Side.

    What about Abu Ghraib? I’d call that gross inhumanity without any exaggeration.

    If you read the second article to which I provided links, you already know that I agree with you about Abu Graib. However, the US military was already well on its way to arresting and prosecuting the guards who committed these acts, and the attempt to tie their illegal actions to administration policy was vicious and unsupportable. Abu Graib was not the result of US policy, it was the result of a kinky little state-side sex ring that inadvertently got sent to cover the night shift at a prison in Iraq. Stuff like that happens in war.

    In fact, there were other reported acts of brutality in prisons run by the US military, just as there are reported acts of brutality in any prison system; the percentage in US military prisons, however, is far below the statistical norm (about .5%, IIRC), and the military does investigate and prosecute offenders.

    We all wish we were perfect. None of us are. There are good and bad people in the US, and good and bad people in the military. Laws, courts, and police exist to weed out and punish the bad ones, and we hope they deter more people from acting out their bad impulses. But none of this excuses us from the responsibility to engage in effective war against our enemies, and I think that includes occasionally getting tough with the most important prisoners.

    Comment by philwynk — June 9, 2009 @ 9:38 am

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