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Saturday, July 03, 2010  

To Tell the Truth

A study by the Shorenstein Center for the Press at Harvard came to the shocking-to-no-one conclusion that American newspapers overwhelmingly referred to waterboarding as torture until 2004, when it turned out that we were doing it and when the Bush administration insisted that the practice wasn't torture at all.

It seems like no papers have copped to the charge of changing their standards because the people in power wanted them changed. Amidst the 'no comments,' Bill Keller's rationalization for the Times record stands out for being revealing:

In an e-mail message on Thursday, Mr. Keller said that defenders of the practice of waterboarding, “including senior officials of the Bush administration,” insisted that it did not constitute torture.

“When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves,” Mr. Keller wrote. “Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and human rights advocates as a form of torture. Nobody reading The Times’ coverage could be ignorant of the extent of the practice (much of that from information we broke) or mistake it for something benign (we usually use the word ‘brutal.’)”

It would have been interesting, and perhaps a little less disheartening, to hear Keller or any editor basically say that we stopped calling it torture because our side was doing it and on some level we didn't want to think of our government's policies as torture. That wouldn't be an especially creditable motive, but it would at least be of a piece with a national media's general tendency to excuse, contextualize, or minimize the crimes of its own nation.

What Keller actually said is more depressing. In so many words, he's saying that an administration can undo a century of moral, legal, and (not less important) linguistic consensus merely by denying it. Calling waterboarding torture, without equivocation, would have amounted to "taking sides in a political dispute" only because the administration decided to dispute it. This is a Dadaist approach to the news: nowadays, an administration makes torture to mean the thing it doesn't do.

This rather striking admission by Keller--striking because he plainly doesn't view it as an admission--shows the payoff of the Bush administration's audacious strategy of simply denying reality altogether. After all, it's not clear to me that things would have worked out worse for Bush and his underlings if they had just said, "Hell yeah it's torture. You're saying you wouldn't'a done it?" which is pretty much what their more honest defenders in the media were saying anyway. If, like most politicians, you view an unpleasant truth as something to be spun, massaged, or neutralized with weasel words, you run a decent chance of being accused of spinning, massaging, and weaseling. If, however, you decide to jettison the concept of truth entirely, you can create "a political dispute" over its existence and you can draft Bill Keller and the New York Times into fighting it for you simply by acknowledging it as such. Say that 'up' is not really the most suitable word for the direction above your head and that you don't want to characterize it too hastily and Dana Milbank will make fun of you. Merely assert that the direction above your head is not up but rather down and the conventions of the properly toilet-trained media will give your position equal time. It will even hire columnists to make the case for you.

Whetstone has written some interesting things lately about why we don't talk more about torture in the context of the successful prosecution of retired Chicago police commander John Burge. What you can never disregard, however, is the raw power dynamics involved and the willingness of the relevant people to take advantage of them. Had Burge, or someone in his position, tried to get Winnetkans and Lincoln Parkers to talk by electrocuting their genitals, he couldn't have gotten through two victims before internal and external pressure stopped him. Likewise, if Eliot Spitzer had decided to waterboard Wall Street players to get them to confess to things, he would have been considered an ogre by all decent people. In the event, Burge shocked the genitals of black criminals (and innocents) from the Southside--people who did not count in Richie Daley's state's attorney's office as real people, and whose sufferings still don't count for much in the eyes of Chicago's media or its audience. Burge was pretty safe when he was on the inside, and he was cut loose when he was just a tired monster who couldn't drag anyone else down with him.

The unfortunate fact is that the civilized consensus against torture is fragile, recent, and, when push comes to shove, quite shallow. Who is doing it, who is having it done to them, and who can be persuaded to call it something else make all the difference in the world.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 2:41 PM
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