Torture is a complex subject. Senator John McCain, who knows a thing or two about it, says torture is beneath us. “We are always Americans, and different, stronger and better than those who would destroy us.” That sounds good, but is it realistic? If a terrorist kidnapped a newborn baby, and left it to die of exposure at an undisclosed location, what mother would balk at using torture to force the terrorist to reveal the baby’s whereabouts? I suspect most mothers would eagerly torture a terrorist personally if necessary to save their newborns.

So the morality of torture comes down to a question of when, not whether, it is justified.

Torturing the English language, on the other hand, is never justified. It is always unpardonable.

That’s what makes the Senate report so disturbing. What kind of government manacles our language, rips into its verbal womb, and extracts such lexical malformations as “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “rectal rehydration”?

Truthful language“The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow,” Senator McCain said last week, presumably meaning orally, not rectally.  “But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless.”

So here’s the truth, America. Our government is a serial torturer of the English language.

Let’s start with “enhanced interrogation techniques.” What does that even mean? Merriam-Webster’s defines “enhance,” as a transitive verb, “to increase or improve in value, quality, desirability, or attractiveness.” It’s hard to see how waterboarding a detainee increases the “desirability or attractiveness” of the interrogator’s questions. From the detainee’s perspective, the questions must appear more debased than enhanced, although answering them undoubtedly becomes much, much more desirable and attractive.

“Rectal rehydration”?  To put it bluntly (which is probably how that technique is applied), why not call it what it is: rape.

Torture becomes “enhanced interrogation techniques” and rape becomes “rectal rehydration” for a reason. The government may be unwilling to resort to lies. But by enlisting euphemistic language, it can blur the hard edges of its operations, and render the revulsive almost palatable.

This is not a new development. From the founding of our Republic, one finds the same penchant for avoiding plain talk.

At the constitutional convention, the framers spent weeks wrestling with the issue of slavery, but they could not bring themselves to mention the words “slave” or “slave trade” in the Constitution itself.  They decided that slaves would count as three fifths of a person for purposes of apportioning congressional districts. But rather than mention “slaves” explicitly,  Article I, section 2 references them by a process of elimination: it provides that representatives shall be apportioned by adding the number of free persons, including those bound for service for a term of years, excluding Indians not taxed, and then counting “three fifths of all other persons.”  Having eliminated everybody else, “all other persons” meant slaves.

The framers decided to allow the slave trade to continue until 1808. But rather than mention the term “slave trade,” Article I, section 9 refers to the “importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit,” as though slaves were guests under consideration for admission to a club.

As long as slavery existed, the word went unmentioned in the Constitution. Finally, with the abolition of slavery in 1865, the word appeared in the Thirteenth Amendment, which declared, with admirable directness, that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States.”

Sometimes, the government starts with candor, and succumbs to euphemisms later. In 1789, Congress created the War Department as one of the first cabinet positions. For more than a century and half, the War Department supervised the fighting of the nation’s wars. Then in 1947, it became the Defense Department. Since the transformation of the War Department into the Defense Department, the nation has fought five major wars, none of them defensive.

The refusal to call things by their proper name has become institutionalized in Washington, utilized by both political parties, and by people in and out of government.

During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, senators were upset over their inability to get straight answers about the military’s involvement in Vietnam. Rather than accuse anyone of lying, the notion took hold that there was a “credibility gap.”

During the Nixon administration, the White House issued and then retracted statements on the Watergate scandal. But it never admitted that it had changed its story. Instead, Press Secretary Ron Zeigler announced: “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.” White House officials never admitted that they lied. Instead, they said that they “misspoke themselves.”

During the Carter administration, the government expanded the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), a jobs program designed to train unemployed persons and place them in public sector jobs, in the hope that they would acquire marketable skills which would allow them to find work in the private sector.  The program was a flop, with few persons finding work after their CETA training ended. Rather than refer to the discharged trainees as unemployed, CETA reports referred to them as “non-positive terminations.”

In the 1970s and 198s, the government began referring to people who enter or remain in this country illegally as “undocumented aliens.” Today, the preferred term is “undocumented immigrants.” Both terms suggest that the only problem facing those who are here illegally is a lack of documents — as though someone at the DMV made a clerical mistake. In fact, most undocumented immigrants have plenty of documents. They just don’t have the right kind of documents; namely, documents that authorize them to remain here legally.

Ronald Reagan campaigned for president promising to reduce taxes. But in 1982, he signed legislation closing loopholes and repealing previous passed tax cuts. His administration refused to label this a tax hike. Instead, it coined the term “revenue enhancement” (not to be confused with interrogation technique enhancement).

The Obama administration came into office determined to differentiate itself in every way possible from the Bush administration. So it avoided any reference to “terrorism.”  Janet Napolitano, the administration’s new Homeland Security Secretary referred instead to “man-caused disasters.” She explained the word-change in an interview with Der Spiegel: “That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.”

Despite its reluctance to use the term “terrorism,” the Obama administration has actually killed more terrorists than the Bush administration did. Nevertheless, in doing so, it has studiously avoided using the term “Islamic terrorists,” purportedly for fear of alienating Muslims and thus playing into the hands of the Islamic terrorists.

But when it comes to torturing language, politicians pale in comparison to the nation’s military and intelligence establishments. Some examples:

Assets” does not refer to cash, accounts receivable, or inventory. It means bombs.

Collateral damage” does not mean impairing your loan security. It means killing civilians, often by dropping assets on them.

Servicing the target” does not mean checking its oil and tire pressure. It means dropping bombs (or, again, assets) on it.

Incontinent ordnance” does not refer to gunners with digestive issues. It means shelling one’s own troops.

Self-injurious behavior incidents” is the Pentagon’s phrase for suicide attempts by prisoners.

At McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, civilian mechanics were told that there were being placed on “non-duty, non-pay status.” That meant they were fired.

Terminate with extreme prejudice,” according to outsiders, is CIA-speak for killing.

All of which brings us back to the CIA’s use of the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Senator McCain was of course correct when he said that the American people are entitled to the truth. He might have also observed that the American people can handle the truth, including the truth that Senator McCain might be wrong about the morality of using torture.

Most Americans can remember the events of September 11, 2001. They can remember the images of men and women choosing the long, lonely leap to their deaths over incineration. They can remember the anthrax scare, and the expectation bordering on certainty that more attacks would follow. Most Americans understand that the torture – and it was torture – inflicted on detainees was done, rightly or wrongly, with the goal of preventing more loss of innocent life.

Whether the torture was justified is a good question. Many conscientious Americans, including some at the CIA, insist that it was, and their views deserve a hearing. But there is no need for sugar-coating. Indeed, the real danger of employing weasel words is that their very use implies shame and guilt.

By all means, let us debate whether torture is ever justified, and, if so, under what conditions. But let us respect the capacity of the American people to handle harsh realities. And above all, let us spare the English language further affliction.


Filed under Foreign Policy, Law, Politics


  1. Andy Strojny

    Well said. We might also want to explore whether torture is effective. Despite countless movies, novels, and TV shows, it is unclear that Jack Bauer’s methods produce reliable intelligence most of the time or even in a significant number of times. Of course, those same sources show that Americans can withstand torture or dupe their interrogators with false information. Apparently we’re made of sterner stuff then our fictional adversaries.

    I was struck by former Vice President Cheney’s acceptance on the December 14th edition of “Meet the Press”, of the fact that 25% of the people we subjected to “torture” were mistakenly detained and in some cases were even informants for us, and his willingness to do it all over again in a heartbeat. Wonder if that’s how we win friends and influence people.

    One aside, I had a job in a psych lab in college funded by CETA. Worked out well for me.

  2. Andy Strojny

    Couldn’t help noticing in the Washington Post’s obituary on Richard C. Hottelet, it stated, “With his Gestapo file growing, he was arrested in March 1941 on espionage charges and spent four months in solitary confinement while being interrogated harshly at a series of prisons.”

    The Gestapo only engaged in harsh interrogations!
    Who knew.

  3. geezer117

    Oh come on. McCain was tortured. If he had only been slapped or had loud music payed, and had no injuries, I doubt he would still be complaining that he had been tortured. Those terrorists had no bones broken, no electrodes attached to their genitals. If any such were done, and no such has been reported publicly, then prosecute those specific perpetrator(s).

    The author complains about torturing the language. I consider invoking the images of and revulsion for torture that most people associate with that word, in a manipulative attempt to make merely discomfort into vastly worse than it is, to be wrong. Everything that was done to those terrorists has been done tens of thousands of times to our own military recruits. If that is torture, thousands of officers belong in prison. If that is not torture, and it isn’t, then the bleeding hearts have to explain how the same acts are torture and not torture, depending on circumstances entirely separate from the acts themselves.

    Is a rehydration enema administered to a severely dehydrated person commendable when administered to a free person, but torture (rape, in the author’s word) if the patient is a prisoner? That standard makes it pretty difficult to treat criminals in our prisons, no? Or is it the state of mind of the person administering the enema, or the slap, that makes it torture?

  4. Andy Strojny

    Well geezer117 at least we can agree that breaking bones and attaching electrodes to genitals is torture. How about death by hypothermia?

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