The Washington Post described evidence of the use of insects, waterboarding, mock burials, sleep deprivation, and “rectal feeding” described in the so-called “torture report” as “severe tactics.” The Wall Street Journal called the behavior “rough treatment,” and NPR used the official euphemism, “enhanced interrogation.”
The New York Times opted to “recalibrate its policy” and use the word “torture” to describe, as its executive editor Dean Baquet put it, “incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.”
This framework closely mirrors the one put forth by the Convention Against Torture, which defines torture as, “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.”
But many media organizations have not applied this binding definition to the brutalities described in the Senate Intelligence Committee report. Some have argued that by using euphemistic terms instead of calling torture “torture,” the media minimizes its horrifying realities. To this point, the Atlantic’s national correspondent James Fallows tweeted:
Seriously, fellow members of the press: do NOT go along with this Orwell newspeak formulation of “EITs.” They can say it. We don’t have to.
— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) December 11, 2014
Although the U.S. has signed rights groups allege that the central premise of this accord has been ignored. That much had been made clear by the “brutal” revelations of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, and reaffirmed by public officials’ past and present to acknowledge that the C.I.A.’s actions were illegal under either international or national law.
“We tortured some folks,” President Barack Obama admitted in a news conference in April in reference to the C.I.A.’s so-called “enhanced interrogation tactics.” Obama banned their use upon taking office in 2009, but has not called for those who perpetrated them to be prosecuted. Even in light of the 525-page report which contains official accounts of inflicting real pain for the sake of obtaining information, the Justice Department has refused to bring criminal charges, citing, perplexingly, insufficient evidence.
In a news conference on Thursday, CIA Director John Brennan stuck to this point.
When asked by and AP reporter, if he would say that detainees were tortured, Brennan said only, “I certainly agree that there were times when CIA officers exceeded the policy guidance that was given and the authorized techniques that were approved and determined to be lawful.”
The same question was put to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after the release of another damning report on the military’s cruel treatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq 10 years ago.
He gave, essentially, the same response.
“My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture.” He continued, “I don’t know if the — it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there’s been a conviction for torture. And therefore I’m not going to address the torture word.”
That’s because using “the torture word” would mean acknowledging that he and others in the Bush administration perpetrated illegal acts — and putting them in the position of facing criminal charges for their role in it.
Acknowledgement is a first step in accepting accountability.
Elaine Scarry laid bare the implications of this in her 2004 essay, “Regarding The Torture of Others.” She wrote:
Words alter, words add, words subtract. It was the strenuous avoidance of the word ”genocide” while some 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda were being slaughtered, over a few weeks’ time, by their Hutu neighbors 10 years ago that indicated the American government had no intention of doing anything. To refuse to call what took place in Abu Ghraib — and what has taken place elsewhere in Iraq and in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay — by its true name, torture, is as outrageous as the refusal to call the Rwandan genocide a genocide.
And by refusing to call the situations as they are, American officials have refused to accept the consequences.
“We take exceptional pride in providing truth to power,” Brennan said yesterday. But he managed to speak for 45 minutes without once using the word “torture.”