Thursday, June 4, 2009

"Neither Interrogation, Nor Enhanced: A Media Failure" by Larry Yates

NPR – and all other media – have a responsibility to stop using the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” to describe waterboarding, slamming prisoners into walls, and the like.

Did we accept the term “patriotic defense against spies” for Stalin’s show trials? Should we have adopted “defending states’ rights” as the standard term to describe resistance to integration of schools and public facilities? By allowing one side to define the terms of these historic controversies to their benefit, we would have ceded the debate before the debate began.

Waterboarding is not the enhanced version of interrogation, the “bad cop” end of the spectrum of interrogation. It’s not an interrogation technique at all. It has been rejected as such not only in international law, but by the United States Armed Forces. The U.S. military’s rejection of waterboarding was not due to tender feelings. This is a body that’s prepared to use nuclear weapons, after all. The U.S. military simply determined waterboarding did not accomplish the purpose of military interrogation - gaining information that can be reliably used to guide military actions.

Torture’s historic practitioners, mostly the kings and priests of despotic regimes, used it to demonstrate their power over their subjects. They were seeking submission –not just from those they actually tortured, but from the many more that knew they could be tortured. free societies reject such a goal

Of course, some uninformed people may actually believe they will gain valuable information from torture. This may well have been the case with some officials under the previous administration, who had neither military nor law enforcement experience. That administration was, after 9/11, in a national security situation far beyond its competence, as indicated by their apparent belief that starting an unrelated war was a good move. Turning to a military survival school and using worst-case enemy practices as a model does seem to be a sign that decision-makers were both desperate and clueless.

The sincerity of the torturers, however, is not the issue. Many of those who conducted the Stalinist show trials were sincere Soviet patriots. Many white southerners genuinely believed that Western Civilization was at risk if the local McDonalds was integrated. In neither case were journalists, or the rest of us, required to accept their versions of the facts, or to adopt their self-justifying language.

What could replace the easy phrase, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” for journalists? The most honest approach would be simply to name the methods, such as waterboarding and beating prisoners. When the precise activities are not known, they could simply be described as “previously forbidden practices.” Or we could simply bite the bullet and call torture, torture. That’s what the United States did when it hanged Japanese soldiers who practiced waterboarding on U.S. prisoners of war.

Our press is doing us no good, nor is it practicing fairness, by persisting in using the factually incorrect phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Instead, reporters and editors are adopting the rhetoric of one of the parties in a vital national debate. If, in the future, torture becomes the new global standard, increasingly used against U.S. troops and U.S. citizens, as well as more overtly and commonly by our own forces, it will be in part because our media helped to cheat us of the honest and fact-based debate we badly need to have today.

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