Tortured Euphemisms

“I’m a strong believer that it’s important to look forward and not backwards.”

That was President Obama’s platitudinous defense of his administration’s decision to refrain from investigating the institutionalized torture of the Bush era. What happened happened, there’s no use in crying over spilt blood, etc. Better to just leave the ghosts of the past be and move on with our lives.

Except, if there’s one thing history and B-horror movies have taught us, it’s that you need to reckon with those ghosts sooner or later. Pretending they don’t exist just makes them more aggressive. Thus the dreary spectacle of yet another Great American Torture Debate. [1] The second Osama Bin Laden’s corpse hit the water Marc Thiessen and John Yoo began scribbling feverish little celebrations of our great victory in the War on Terror: that victory being that we finally, beyond a shadow of a doubt, proved that torture “works,” probably, whatever that means.

I won’t bother with a step-by-step refutation of that argument. The claim, like its authors, is beneath contempt. And besides, others (what up, Marcy Wheeler) are doing a way better job at it. What I do want to talk about is The Great American Torture Debate’s stunted little goblinoid brother, The Great American “Torture” Meta-Debate. The question at the heart of that argument being: When is it permissible for a serious journalist to use the word “torture” to refer to the practice of torture? When is it far better to stay away from the T-word and instead use some kind of anemic neologism like “enhanced interrogation” or “harsh questioning” or “super sad unsnuggle discomfort times?”

This week New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane uses his Sunday column to describe how various departments of the Times deal with the matter. He notes that while the editorial department occasionally gets to call torture by its true name, other sections have to resort to a litany of half-assed euphemisms. [2]

No doubt you already know the reason why. Since alumni of the Bush administration continue to insist that the practices they authorized did not constitute torture, disagreeing with those alumni in print is — in the words of NYT executive editor Bill Keller — tantamount to “taking sides.”

That this is transparently ludicrous is an old point, but one always worth repeating. The Bush administration did authorize torture. Various key members, having discovered that they have no reason to fear repercussions, have basically admitted this. I say “basically” because they still need to maintain a certain amount of deliberate obscurity for the purposes of legal protection and basic decorum.

But to this day the Times — despite some mild chiding from its public editor — remains complicit in the maintenance of this obscurity. And that complicity severely undermines the paper’s pretensions to objectivity. By refusing to “take sides” on a simple empirical matter, the editors of the Times have burdened their coverage with a distinct pro-authority bias. Because the important argument isn’t over whether or not the Bush administration authorized torture. It’s over whether the the definition of torture is really so ambiguous that you can even make the case that something as obviously barbaric as waterboarding doesn’t count.

In that argument, the Times has clearly taken a side.

[1] If you haven’t yet read Dahlia Lithwick’s take on the subject, please do so.

[2] My favorite half-assed euphemism is “tough treatment,” which sounds like it belongs in a Sunday Styles profile of CIA interrogators who make their detainees practice the violin for at least one hour a day and do SAT prep for two.

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