The New York Times Finally Comes Around on "Torture"

The New York Times has finally decided, only a decade or so too late, that it will now use the word "torture" to describe the torture techniques used during the Bush years by the United States government on prisoners believed to be connected to terrorism. While we should certainly be glad that they've finally come around, the statement by Executive Editor Dean Baquet explaining their decision shows just how wrongheaded the editors' thinking this issue has been all along. You should read the whole thing (it's pretty brief), but here are some particularly troubling parts:

When the first revelations emerged a decade ago, the situation was murky. The details about what the Central Intelligence Agency did in its interrogation rooms were vague. The word "torture" had a specialized legal meaning as well as a plain-English one. While the methods set off a national debate, the Justice Department insisted that the techniques did not rise to the legal definition of "torture." The Times described what we knew of the program but avoided a label that was still in dispute, instead using terms like harsh or brutal interrogation methods.

But as we have covered the recent fight over the Senate report on the C.I.A.'s interrogation program — which is expected to be the most definitive accounting of the program to date — reporters and editors have revisited the issue. Over time, the landscape has shifted. Far more is now understood, such as that the C.I.A. inflicted the suffocation technique called waterboarding 183 times on a single detainee and that other techniques, such as locking a prisoner in a claustrophobic box, prolonged sleep deprivation and shackling people's bodies into painful positions, were routinely employed in an effort to break their wills to resist interrogation.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, has made clear that it will not prosecute in connection with the interrogation program. The result is that today, the debate is focused less on whether the methods violated a statute or treaty provision and more on whether they worked – that is, whether they generated useful information that the government could not otherwise have obtained from prisoners. In that context, the disputed legal meaning of the word "torture" is secondary to the common meaning: the intentional infliction of pain to make someone talk.

First, the part about learning the extent of the torture is absolutely irrelevant to what you call it. The implication is that if a prisoner had been waterboarded 10 times, then you might not call it torture, but since it was 183 times, you would. That's plainly absurd.

But more importantly, when Baquet says the Times "avoided a label that was still in dispute," what he's saying is that the paper essentially outsourced its judgment on what is and isn't torture to the Bush administration. All that was required to put the matter "in dispute" was for the administration to declare, beyond all reason and common sense, that things like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and stress positions aren't torture, and the Times threw up its hands and said: "Well, we can't call that torture anymore, because now that's in dispute." So, presumably, if tomorrow the Obama administration decided to refer to Republicans as "the Hater party," the Times would no longer use the term "Republican" in its pages, because now that's "in dispute."

And on the merits, the torture advocates (a group that includes both Bush administration officials and the administration's outside allies) had such a weak case for why its techniques weren't actually torture that it couldn't be called a "case" at all. When asked why, say, waterboarding isn't torture, they would simply repeat that it isn't torture. Why? Because it isn't torture. The question I never saw any of them asked, and which would have been illuminating, is a simple one: "What is torture, then?" None of them were ever required to supply their definition of torture, a definition that would exclude things like waterboarding, stress positions, or sleep deprivation.

Any such definition would be laughable on its face. Can you think of a definition of torture that wouldn't apply to stress positions, where you force the subject to endure a condition that progresses from uncomfortable to painful to excruciating? Of course you can't. The torture advocates couldn't either. That should have settled the matter years ago.

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