Suppose Slaughtering Puppies Directly Contributed to the Assassination of bin Laden

We can do this the easy way or the hard way.


It seems the naysayers, rather than Orwell, were correct: “the English Language is in a bad way, but… we cannot do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language—so the argument runs must inevitably share in the general collapse.” This comes from Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, from which Bruce Thornton quotes at the beginning of his editorial lamenting the willy-nilly use of the word torture by the lamestream media.

Thornton finds torture as the liberal media defines it too euphemistic; describing waterboarding as torture opens the door to outlawing it entirely and thereby forever shutting the mouths of high status detainees and endangering the lives of United States citizens at home and abroad. He prefers “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

Thornton doesn’t seem to disagree that torture is (rightly) illegal, only that waterboarding doesn’t qualify as torture and therefore isn’t illegal and offers a modified version of the “the government doesn’t torture, therefore waterboarding [and whatever else it might sanction] isn’t torture” defense and ambiguous legal theory to prove his point. Thornton doesn’t object to John Yoo, whose book he calls “indispensable”, his argument that “If severe physical or mental pain or suffering results, but was unintentional, or unanticipated, it would not be torture”, or the definition of “severe pain” that seems to result only from internal hemorrhaging.

So long as it doesn’t reach levels most sadistic techniques employed by Vietcong and the Spanish Inquisition, Thornton doesn’t like throwing around the word torture. Never mind that Spanish Inquisition counted waterboarding among the many interrogation techniques in its arsenal. But this logic makes waterboarding, as well as beating people with a bar of soap, an appealing technique: all the suffering without any of the unpleasant (that is incriminating) side effects. But this troll logic, while amusing, uses one equivocation to obfuscate another considerably more sinister. Proponents of enhanced interrogation techniques focus on the questionable and convoluted issue of legality to distract from the incredibly begged assumption that waterboarding works.

The disturbing corollary to this is that the government, presumably working towards the best interest and safety of its citizens, should have at its disposal any and all effective techniques, but, as any good libertarian should know, effective techniques are often those most likely to be abused and misused. And, with some, even the most effective of all, use is abuse.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely in defence of the indefensible.  Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties.  Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.
Orwell, Politics and the English Language

Whether or not information obtained through enhanced interrogation techniques led to the assassination of bin Laden has no relevance to the question of whether the government should have them in its interrogation tool kit; it doesn’t prove that they could not have obtained information leading to bin Laden’s assassination by other, less morally ambiguous means, and it doesn’t justify including effectiveness in a discussion of legality.

Such arguments conflate legality with morality and correlation with causation. It doesn’t just sully and confuse language, it stifles debate. We shouldn’t have to defer to inadequate legal code and the annals of CIA intelligence gathering to determine whether an “interrogation technique” is torture and whether those operating on behalf of the government should be allowed to perform them on individuals regardless of their citizenship.

According to Orwell, “a scrupulous writer in every sentence he [or she] writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: what am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clear? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?” I can’t answer all of these for everyone defending state-sanctioned enhanced interrogation, but to the first the answer is, obviously, “in matters of national security, the government should have the authority to interrogate (presumably foreign) suspects with methods that produce more physical and mental suffering than laws would normally allow.” We can perhaps have this discussion, but, until advocates of waterboarding honestly state their position, we can only assume, with Orwell that the “debate” they’re fostering now “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”