Torture and the New York Times


Andrew Sullivan has for years rightly blasted the New York Times for refusing to use the word ‘torture’ when describing what the Bush administration did to detainees. Now Bill Keller of the Times attempts to defend that reluctance. I say ‘attempts’ because he fails miserably. Bizarrely, he admits that it clearly was torture even though they have refused to call it that:

Why, in 2013, is it front-page news that the Bush Administration engaged in “torture?” It took a nonpartisan panel two years and 577 pages to establish that the torment inflicted on prisoners under the rubric of “enhanced interrogation” was unequivocally torture. Didn’t we already know that?

Well yes, we did. So why has the Times refused to call it torture? His weak attempt to defend it:

Now that I reside in the opinion zone, I use the word “torture” without hesitation, but I still believe that editors in the news pages should be a little slow to preempt the judgment of readers, or to use language that carries a suggestion of political posture. Does the nonpartisan report made public today mean that what is “torture” in the Opinion pages can now be “torture” in the news pages? Has the noun shed some of its partisan freight? Watch that space.

Like “torture,” “terror” is a word with both common and formal meanings. It has legal as well as moral weight. It is not just an attribute but a definition. While bypassing “torture” tends to offend the left, failing to hit the “terror” button is viewed on the right as evidence of spinelessness, if not sympathy for the devil. Refer to Hamas or Hezbollah or the Taliban without appending the word “terrorist” and you are, in the eyes of some, an apologist by default.

Talk about false equivalence. The obvious difference is that the definition of terrorism is based upon intent; if an act of violence and mayhem is done for the purpose of making a political point, to express outrage (particularly at a government) or to create a sense of panic, we generally call it terrorism (as opposed to, say, a serial killer, who may kill just as many people but does so for private rather than public reasons). Since we do not yet know who set off the bombs or why they did it, we have no idea if it should be called terrorism or not. I suspect we will find out soon.

That simply isn’t the case with torture. There is zero question that waterboarding is torture and a war crime. We know that because we have tried and convicted the agents of other governments for doing it many times. And our own government has called nearly everything we did to detainees torture when it has been done by other governments. And the Times has also called those things torture when committed by other governments. I would argue that not being consistent in this regard, treating it differently when done by our government than when it is done by others, is quite obviously adopting a “suggestion of political posture.”

Comments

  1. birgerjohansson says

    But when we waterboard, it is not torture because Baby Jesus, 9/11 and Patriotism.

  2. says

    “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”—Humpty Dumpty

  3. says

    I still believe that editors in the news pages should be a little slow to preempt the judgment of readers, or to use language that carries a suggestion of political posture.

    Here’s a recommendation: Base your word choice in all contexts on honesty and accuracy – choose the language that you think best conveys reality.

  4. frankb says

    In the view of conservatives terrorist acts done by our allies is not terrorism. Israel has committed far more terrorism than Hamas and Hezbollah combined and both those organizations arose to defend their civilian populations against Israel. So terrorism and torture is something other people do.

  5. Hercules Grytpype-Thynne says

    Keller’s argument here is a transparent admission that the right-wing’s tactic of screeching “biased liberal media!!!” has achieved everything they could have hoped.

  6. frankb says

    but I still believe that editors in the news pages should be a little slow to preempt the judgment of readers,

    1. If you are talking about the front page, sure. But the opinion page, that’s total BS.
    2. That is obviously a lame excuse for being an apologist for Bush and Chaney.
    3. When the obvious judgement the readers will reach is something Sullivan doesn’t like, they are just going to have to reach it on their own.

  7. kantalope says

    re: NYT article referenced by Akira…WTF? Clearly, the Times should be as FactFree® as the Washington Times or any Murdoch offering.

    Worrying about reality is soooo Pre-Reagan.

    Oh – and “enhanced interrogation techniques” is the obfuscating double-speak term not torture.

    And as I was listening to a torture apologist on a usually excellent podcast – http://www.spymuseum.org/multimedia/spycast/1/

    Torture depends on why you are doing it. If you are pulling out someone’s fingernails for apple pie and the USA: not torture. Also if you fill out all the correct paperwork: not torture. If the bureaucracy approves of what you are doing: not torture. If the fingernails in question will eventually grow back: not torture. What happens to all the innocent victims because you didn’t ‘not torture’ someone: torture.

  8. unbound says

    @3 – Wow. I missed that one.

    More disturbing, from reading the article, it looks like the editor is viewing fact-checking as the reporter “…imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.” So apparently, in that editor’s view, the reporter either rehashes without comment or is distorting the story with their judgement. If the editor can’t even figure out that she put out a false dilemma, I’m not sure she’s in a good position to be editing anything that is remotely like news.

  9. typecaster says

    I’m not surprised. Last year the Times was wringing its Editorial hands on whether their reporters should actually pursue facts.

    I scrolled down through the reader comments – by the time I gave up, I still hadn’t found even a single response that wasn’t appalled at the Times for even asking the question. I don’t think that the response influenced their behavior in any way, but the readers clearly wanted them to actually pursue facts.

  10. tynk says

    While bypassing “torture” tends to offend the left, failing to hit the “terror” button is viewed on the right as evidence of spinelessness

    OK, so the rules of the “Elite Liberal Lamestream Media” are…

    1: Never use the word torture, or it will make the right wing mad.
    2: Always use the word terror, or it will make the right wing mad.

  11. slavdude says

    How Bill Keller has fallen.

    I remember when he was the Times’s Moscow correspondent in 1989-1991 and his coverage was reasonably objective. Now that he has moved into manglement, though, he’s had to get out the weasel words.

    Sigh.

  12. sezme says

    tynk @13

    To be fair you could also write the rules as:

    1: Never use the word terror, or it will make the left wing mad.
    2: Always use the word torture, or it will make the left wing mad.

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