Sunday, May 3, 2009

Torture at the Times

Recent debates in the columns of the New York Times over the use of the word "torture" to describe waterboarding call to mind something Bruce Springsteen said years ago: if you don't use your own mind, somebody else will use it for you.

As public editor Clark Hoyt observes in his April 25 column, "Telling the Brutal Truth," the Times editorial page long ago accepted the use of the word "torture" to describe what the Bush administration preferred to call "enhanced interrogation techniques." But Times news reports use other terms, such as "brutal" interrogation techniques--even when they describe waterboarding. The rationale for this is offered by Douglas Jehl, an editor in the Washington bureau, in the same piece.
Jehl said that when the paper is discussing what is generally regarded as the most extreme interrogation method the C.I.A. used, waterboarding, “we’ve become more explicit in saying in a first reference that it’s a near-drowning technique” that Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and many other experts “have called torture.” But he said: “I have resisted using torture without qualification or to describe all the techniques. Exactly what constitutes torture continues to be a matter of debate and hasn’t been resolved by a court. This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?” Jehl argued for precision and caution. I agree.

One of the best answers to this argument came in letters to Hoyt published in this week's public editor's column.

Douglas Jehl, the Washington Bureau deputy editor, asks, “On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict” on what constitutes torture?

How about on the basis of legal theory, international treaty, statute and case law, which provide several centuries’ worth of settled definitions?

Medieval and early modern jurists argued about the effectiveness and desirability of using torture — they were well aware of its potential to produce false confessions. Enlightenment debate turned to prohibition. Regardless, jurists agreed about what constituted torture.

The deliberate euphemisms of the Bush administration add something new: redefine torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” This sleight of hand should not triumph in The New York Times.

Appleton, Wis., April 27, 2009

Span's letter gets to the heart of the matter. Jehl, in waiting for a Washington consensus on the definition of torture, is abdicating his own judgment and letting presidents and attorneys general think for him. And that leaves the all-important choices of words and definitions to officeholders less interested in truth than in framing terms and issues in ways that let them do what they want to do.

The answer is not for journalists to invent meanings and apply them as they wish. But when there is a dispute over a word, the Times has every right--indeed every obligation--to clarify the situation with research and analysis of its own. After that, I am confident, it would reach the reasonable conclusion that waterboarding is a form of torture.