08/04/2014 07:29 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

'Torturing Some Folks'

President Obama is being praised by some for use of the term "torture" during a recent press conference when he referred to post-9/11 interrogation techniques employed on behalf of our government. While use of the term "torture" may constitute admirable candor, the candor was partially contradicted by his use of two words of obfuscation later in the sentence: "we tortured some folks."

I have long wondered about President Obama's repeated use of the term "folks." His frequent use of the term sounds a bit odd and inauthentic, given his educational background and how he otherwise employs language.

The term "folks" has a rural, "common people" connotation. Its country cousin is "kinfolks." It is a term favored by persons who hail from a lower socio-economic, and less educated, class. People who served as president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, and who go on to hold a position as a law professor at the University of Chicago law school, don't employ the term "folks" that frequently -- and not nearly as much as it has become a go-to, default term for the president.

At times, the Hyde Park law professor can sound a little like the lawyers arguing a case and mocking an opponent before a jury in the southern courtrooms depicted in Inherit the Wind or My Cousin Vinny. I am not aware of any Obama deconstruction of the general term down to townsfolk or womenfolk. But, when I hear President Obama refer to "folks" in certain settings, I hear echoes of Sheriff Bart -- Cleavon Little's role as the erudite, cultured black Sheriff appointee archly making fun of the "simple folks of Rockridge" in the 1970's Mel Brooks' send up comedy Blazing Saddles. Certainly his treatment by the Republican congress resembles, to an eerie degree, the "welcome" reception accorded Sheriff Bart when he rode into town as the appointed black Sheriff of an all-white frontier town in America's west.

Over the years, Obama has used the "folks" appellation under two sets of circumstances.

The first is in a crafted political stump speech at a rally or town hall meeting. There, "folks" -- i.e. the common people who are working hard or who like their medical plan -- should be reassured or valued more, he may say. Deploying the term "folks" in certain political contexts is like uttering a term of endearment or approval for our kinfolks.

The term is employed by the president to minimize the distance between himself and likely voters. On the one hand they are "folks who..." are like him or share small town, unsophisticated values. On the other hand, terrorists, Wall Street bankers or Tea Party stalwarts generally are not described in the Obama lexicon as "folks." Ted Cruz, Jamie Dimon and Mohmar Khadaffy need not expect to be drawn under the president's "folks" umbrella.

The second set of circumstances occurs in news conferences or impromptu media or journalistic appearances. In these settings, it may seem that he had no scripted reference in mind; but rather the "folks" term simply emerged from his characteristic, staccato speaking cadence when it sometimes seems like he is searching his mental dictionary for the right word to use. At the press conference, it emerged as an informal term in seemingly off-the-cuff remarks. But really, the language-lawyer wordsmith in his brain purposefully wants to steer well clear of the other terms available.

Employing such an informal, unspecific term, however, raises an obvious question: Who was tortured? President Obama's answer is "folks" -- not people, not enemies, not innocents, not suspects -- were tortured.

Breaking folks down into any subgroup for whom we may have had legal or moral responsibility when they were in detention facilities under control of our government personnel, or placing them in a larger national or ideological context, would not be prudent in the president's view. Virtually any alternative terms for categorizing precisely what human beings were subjected to terror at the hands of U.S. government operatives might carry political and legal baggage if they were employed by him to more naturally and informatively describe the subjects of the torture.

Other terms for possible grouping of torture victims have an operational connotation (e.g. detained suspects, captured Islamic jihad fighters, persons imprisoned after a battlefield conflict) or are fraught with legal questions which may someday be resolved in a negative manner against our government or its officials. Some Spanish or German magistrate ready to level war crime charges may do to President Obama what they have done to George Bush and Dick Cheney: make them very careful about the European countries they choose to visit when out of office.

Terrorists (when captured and tried) have lawyers; arrested suspects have lawyers; citizens have lawyers in American courts, non-citizens have lawyers in the courts of other nations that take seriously international laws against torture.

"Folks" don't have lawyers. There are no lawsuits entitled Folks vs. the United States of America. Folks slip into the even lower level of "just folks" where they have no specific, categorizing term and their treatment is lumped together as simply the collateral damage that can occur from conflict.

Like the use of distancing, passive voiced phrases such as "mistakes were made," employing the term "folks" provides emotional distance between the actor and the acted upon. People in positions of power gravitate toward the use of terms that evade responsibility for specific, identifiable victims. Empathy for the "tortured" or anger against the torturer is displaced by use of a nameless, faceless identifier for a human being who in normal parlance would be placed into a linguistically smaller, more precise subgroup like man/woman, citizen or even enemy. The members of such a subgroup of "folk" of course may be the subject of laws that protect from them from use of torture.

The halting, hesitant use of that term by President Obama suggests very strongly he knows that, and is being obtusely precise in his calculated imprecision.