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  • Monday, December 13, 2004


    Always Back to the Torture

    I'm still amazed that the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo scandals haven't brought down some resignations or dismissals in the Bush Administration. The following from a Mother Jones interview helped me understand a little bit. No one’s really talking about Abu Ghraib right now, and the new Red Cross report about abuse "tantamount to torture" at Guantanamo was barely a blip. Why don't Americans care more about this issue?

    Mark Danner: I think this isn’t really a question of public opinion, but of the government not having instituted any process of formal investigation that can really get at the broad issues of treatment of prisoners and torture. This isn’t an accident. What you have here actually is a strategy from the Bush administration to contain what could have been a scandal that could have brought down senior officials and could have lost them the election. After the disclosure of the photographs in late April, they put in place a plan of action designed to contain the scandal. Essentially, you had a chain of responsibility that began on the ground level at Abu Ghraib with soldiers who actually were abusing and torturing detainees and stretched up into the White House, ending ultimately with the president himself. Each of the investigations put in place looked at several links in that long chain. None of them actually was able, or even empowered, to look at the entire scandal and the entire chain of responsibility. Only Congress or some kind of special prosecutor would have been able to do that. And because Congress was in Republican hands, the administration was able to quash any such broad investigation. Now, all of that is deeply regrettable, but I don’t necessary think it means the public doesn’t care about it. It simply means that the government is in the hands of one party and that one party has been extremely disciplined and effective in containing the scandal from the beginning.

    And this quote is about one of the things I find most maddening about politics in general but most particularly the current administration: the use (or misuse) of descriptive words. The deliberate application of completely inappropriate words to describe events or legislation. "Clear Skies," my ass! In your writing, you focus a lot on the language that’s been used to justify or downplay torture, particularly the euphemisms the administration has used, like “sleep adjustment” for sleep deprivation. Can you talk more about the use of such language and the role it plays?

    MD: One of the virtues, if you can call it that, of the Abu Ghraib scandal is that we’ve been offered a window into the realm of government decision-making having to do with interrogation and torture. And so we enter this -- one has to call it Orwellian, to use a much overused word -- realm of euphemism in which keeping somebody awake for 72 hours, or making them stand on a box and telling them they’ll be electrocuted if they move, or handcuffing them high up on a cell door so that they lose all feeling in their arms, are somehow “sleep adjustment.” You have this panoply of euphemism in which procedures that are painful, psychologically damaging, and physically debilitating are described in ways that suggest they are not harmful and they’re simply “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Some of the news media have adopted these euphemisms and refuse to call things what they are. It’s a general harshening of the public perception and the public sensitivity to what should be an appreciation for human rights.

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