Words and cruelty

Sam Smith, 2004

Listening to Diane Rehm the other morning as she and her panelists turned the horrors of Abu Ghraib into just another matter of politics, policy, and process brought to mind the question: what if the prisoners had been Jewish and the time 70 years ago and the place Germany? How would Diane Rehm have handled that story?

It is not just our arguments, but our words, that reveal us. For example, the panelists — two from the Washington Post publishing empire and one a rightwing law prof and sometime adviser to Donald Rumsfeld (though passed off merely as being with the Council on Foreign Relations) — clearly did not like the word ‘torture,’ with Newsweek’s Michael Hirsh favoring “these techniques.” Rehm even had a hard time with another word, referring to “the scandal — if you will.”

They likewise discussed the Geneva convention against torture and other abuses as though morality were simply a matter of international legalisms — with humans permitted to engage in any act not prohibited by specific mention on paper of the particular cruelty or status of the victim. Thus, if you were not in the protected class of combatants then, one gathered, it was fine for Donald Rumsfeld to do what he wished to your genitals or your mind.

Diane Rehm is not alone. Here is a truly remarkable example from another icon of the Washington establishment, Jim Lehrer, as he was interviewed by Chris Matthews about the failure of the media to critically analyze the basis for the Iraq war:

Lehrer: The word occupation, keep in mind, Chris, was never mentioned in the run-up to the war. It was liberation. This was a war of liberation, not a war of occupation. So as a consequence, those of us in journalism never even looked at the issue of occupation.

Matthews: Because?

Lehrer: Because it just didn’t occur to us. We weren’t smart enough to do it.

Just how smart do you have to be not to realize that when you invade a country successfully, you’re going to end up occupying it?

But again, Lehrer was not alone, Antonia Zerbisias writes in the Toronto Star that “I did a quick Dow Jones database search on ‘exit strategy’ for the first three months of last year and came up with 316 references — the vast majority of them referring to Saddam’s exit strategy for avoiding war and/or being killed or captured. Not very scientific, of course. But it indicates that, while the media cheered U.S. troops going in, few thought about getting them out.”

In Washington these days, morality is defined not by philosophy or principles but by restrictive words written by lawyers and ambiguous phrases concocted by public relations experts. Politicians, their academic groupies in the think tanks, and the media accept these words and phrases with little question. Thus justice becomes not a matter of broad decency but of narrow definition and indefinable euphemism.

The problem is the one that Edgar Alan Power described: “By ringing small changes on the words leg-of-mutton and turnip, …. I could ‘demonstrate’ that a turnip was, is, and of right ought to be, a leg-of-mutton.”

For example, for centuries ordinary people have known exactly what a bribe was. The Oxford English Dictionary found it described in 1528 as meaning to “to influence corruptly, by a consideration.” Another 16th century definition describes bribery as “a reward given to pervert the judgment or corrupt the conduct” of someone.

In more modern times, the Meat Inspection Act of 1917 prohibits giving “money or other thing of value, with intent to influence” to a government official.

But that was before the lawyers and the politicians got around to rewriting the meaning of bribery. And so we came to a time a few years ago when the Supreme Court actually ruled that a law prohibiting the giving of gifts to a public official “for or because of an official act” didn’t mean anything unless you knew exactly what the official act was. In other words, bribery was only illegal if the bribee was dumb enough to give you a receipt.

The media has gone along with the scam, virtually dropping the word from its vocabulary in favor of phrases like “inappropriate gift,” or “the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Another example is the remarkable redefinition of money to mean speech. You can test this one out by making a deal with a prostitute and if a cop comes along, simply say, “Officer, I wasn’t giving her money, I was just giving her a speech.” If that doesn’t work you can try giving more of that speech to the cop. Or try telling the IRS next April that “I have the right to remain silent.” And so forth. I wouldn’t advise it.

The verbal blanding of the brutality in which the Bush regime has engaged is a form of acquiescence and even encouragement. Further silent support of official cruelty can be found in the broad media refusal — save a few exceptions such as the New York Times’ Fox Butterfield — to report parallel violent mistreatment of those in domestic prisons.

You don’t just need techniques and instruments to torture. You also need the right words to justify it. Marshall Rosenberg, who teaches non-violent communication, was struck in reading psychological interviews with Nazi war criminals not by their abnormality, but that they used a language denying choice: “should,” “one must,” “have to.” For example, Adolph Eichmann was asked, “Was it difficult for you to send these tens of thousands of people their death?” Eichmann replied, “To tell you the truth, it was easy. Our language made it easy.”

Asked to explain, Eichmann said, “My fellow officers and I coined our own name for our language. We called it amtssprache — ‘office talk.'” In office talk “you deny responsibility for your actions. So if anybody says, ‘Why did you do it?’ you say, ‘I had to.’ ‘Why did you have to?’ ‘Superiors’ orders. Company policy. It’s the law.'”

Just like “those techniques” at Abu Ghraib.

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