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'Torture' has become a word in political and media Newspeak

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"Torture' has become a word in political and media Newspeak

            During the Nov. 12 Republican debate, several candidates channeled George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in reply to a question about waterboarding suspected terrorists.   Michelle Bachmann announced to an applauding audience that "If I were president, I would be willing to use waterboarding. I think it was very effective."

            Herman Cain said "I don't see it as torture. I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique." With a passion he has also shown for executions, Rick Perry proclaimed that he would use such techniques "that we know will extract the information to save young American lives. And I will be for it until I die."

            Rick Santorum said "We have to use enhanced interrogation techniques, all enhanced interrogation techniques." Although Romney didn't have a chance to address the issue during the debate, his aide told CNN immediately afterward that Romney doesn't believe waterboarding is torture.

            At the other end of the decency and intelligence spectrum, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman strongly rejected waterboarding. Paul said "waterboarding is torture. It's illegal under international law and under our law. It's also immoral." Huntsman was just as clear: "We should not torture. Waterboarding is torture."

            John McCain (himself a victim of torture in Vietnam) had this comment on what he heard from his GOP colleagues: "Ask any military lawyer; ask any person who knows about the Geneva conventions that we're signatories to. We actually prosecuted Japanese war criminals specifically for the act of waterboarding against Americans."

            The U.N. Convention against Torture (ratified by the U.S.) defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining . . . information or a confession."

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Waterboarding involves slowly drowning a person, but stopping just short of death. What sort of mind or conscience would suggest that this is not "severe pain or suffering"?

The only reason why anyone today would question whether waterboarding (or sleep deprivation and stress positions) is torture is that the Bush administration decided to torture suspected terrorists. It then ordered an unprincipled Justice Department to weaken the definition of torture so it did not include waterboarding.

What they did would be like the Nixon administration claiming that according to their definition of burglary the Watergate break-in was not a crime.

In George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, Newspeak is the official language of Oceania, and was designed to gradually replace Old English. As Orwell explained, the purpose of Newspeak was "to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc [the ruling party]."

Of course, we are still far from having Orwell's totalitarian single-party state. But our two political parties constantly attempt to manipulate mass media in order to shape the public's perception and thought processes. The GOP and its financial backers have been much better at this than the Democrats.

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For instance, they've managed to give "government" the negative connotation of something contrary to freedom or liberty. And they seem bent on defining "freedom/liberty" as the absence of market regulation and of legal restraints on corporations.

Newspeak allows Republicans to reject "torture" while promising to reinstate waterboarding and other forms of what was known in 20th-century English as torture.

            We need to resist the corruption of language and thought by Newspeak. Waterboarding is torture. Anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant, willfully stupid, or lying. To ask whether the U.S. should be waterboarding suspected terrorists is to ask whether we accept torture.

            The mainstream media have disgraced themselves by caving in to Bush Newspeak.   A 2010 report by Harvard's Shorenstein Center found that "From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the [four American] newspapers [with the highest daily circulation] that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture." After that date, they substituted Bush euphemisms such as "harsh" and "coercive."

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I'm a retired philosophy professor at Centre College. I also am a regular columnist for The Danville Advocate-Messenger,the local paper in what was my home town (I now live in Connecticut. My last book was Posthumanity-Thinking Philosophically (more...)

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