Over at Boing Boing, Rob Beschizza found himself paging through the New York Times' take on the WikiLeaks "Iraq War Logs," when he suddenly had a realization:
Reading the NYT's stories about the Iraq War logs, I was struck by how it could get through such gruesome descriptions -- fingers chopped off, chemicals splashed on prisoners -- without using the word 'torture.' For some reason the word is unavailable when it is literally meaningful, yet is readily tossed around for laughs in contexts where it means nothing at all. It turns out the NYT has a reputation for studiously avoiding the word, to the point of using bizarre bureaucratic alternatives.
Beschizza is referring to a study undertaken at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government that found that once the United States got way into torturing people, major media organs like the New York Times started referring to the practice with a new array of euphemisms. Unless of course, they were referring to other nations, using the same brutal techniques. In those cases, waterboarding become "torture" once again. From the study: "In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible."
In response to the study, the Times stepped out with its own, uhm... enhanced-interrogation-technique-ified explanation:
"As the debate over interrogation of terror suspects grew post-9/11, defenders of the practice (including senior officials of the Bush administration) insisted that it did not constitute torture," a Times spokesman said in a statement. "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. Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of torture."
The Times spokesman added that outside of the news pages, editorials and columnists "regard waterboarding as torture and believe that it fits all of the moral and legal definitions of torture." He continued: "So that's what we call it, which is appropriate for the opinion pages."
So, to repeat myself, waterboarding is totally torture so long as we are "outside of the news pages," where journalists at the Times are free to believe that waterboarding "fits all of the moral and legal definitions of torture." And, obviously, they want to make it clear that they feel that they deserve credit for having these important feelings about morality, despite the fact that they are too terrified to evince these principles in the "news pages" of a "newspaper" that's best known for publishing "pages of news."
Beschizza's response is so wonderfully BoingBoing-esque! He's created a happy little widget for the Times reporter who's crushing deadlines preclude him from accessing his moral compass -- a random torture euphemism generator. Please click on over and take it for a spin yourself. My favorites include: "Prisoners suffered rigorous information pursuit measures," "Prisoners experienced imposing information integration admeasurements," and "Detainees suffered magnified aquatic diagnostics."
The WikiLeaks documents themselves contain plenty of soldiers using the word "torture" in their reports.
The New York Times Torture Euphemism Generator! [BoingBoing]