Last week America’s political classes found themselves forced by the Supreme Court to confront the issue of whether the United States has legally authorised the torture of terror suspects in its prisons.
That has been the issue for five years now, ever since the Bush administration unilaterally evaded the Geneva conventions and, on the president’s executive authority, tortured several Al-Qaeda suspects in CIA custody.
It blew up when the Abu Ghraib photographs emerged, showing that torture and abuse had spread like a cancer through the ranks of the military, with hundreds of documented cases in every field of combat.
It was almost halted last December by the McCain Amendment, which the president subsequently declined to enforce. It came to a climax last week in a confusing blizzard of legislative verbiage. Both sides are still fighting over what exactly the Senate-Bush deal meant, which means that “the programme” will apparently continue.
Of course, the narrative I have just used is disputed by the president. He stated very recently: “I want to be absolutely clear with our people, and the world: the United States does not torture. It’s against our laws, and it’s against our values. I have not authorised it — and I will not authorise it.”
So we are reduced to fighting over a word, “torture”. President George W Bush’s preferred terminology is “alternative interrogation techniques” or “coercive interrogation” or “harsh interrogation methods”, or simply, amazingly, his comment last Thursday that a policy of waterboarding detainees is merely a policy to “question” them.
Suddenly I am reminded of George Orwell. One essay of his, Politics and the English Language, still stands out over the decades as a rebuke to all those who deploy language to muffle meaning. One passage is particularly apposite:
“A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”
It is time to concede that in America right now the atmosphere is bad. Here is Bush defining torture in a speech he gave in June 2003: “The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, ratified by the United States and more than 130 other countries since 1984, forbids governments from deliberately inflicting severe physical or mental pain or suffering on those within their custody or control.”
So what is “severe physical or mental pain or suffering”? The president does not apparently believe that strapping someone to a board, tipping them upside down and pouring water repeatedly over Cellophane wrapped over their face is severe suffering.
The CIA confirms that most suspects cannot last much more than 30 seconds of the drowning sensation. But no marks are left. So that is not “torture”.
We are then informed that almost all the “coercive interrogation techniques” used by the Bush administration are not torture. One is called “long time standing”. Basically, it entails forcing a prisoner to stay standing indefinitely, by prodding him if he tries to rest, or shackling his wrists to a bolt in a low ceiling or a railing.
At first the detainees in CIA custody were required to be so restrained for a maximum of four hours without any rest. Then a memo from Donald Rumsfeld , the defence secretary, came down the chain of command: “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?”
Why indeed? It certainly sounds mild enough.
But here is a description of what it actually means in uncorrupted English: “There is the method of simply compelling a prisoner to stand there. This can be arranged so that the accused stands only while being interrogated — because that, too, exhausts and breaks a person down.
“It can be set up in another way — so that the prisoner sits down during interrogation but is forced to stand up between interrogations. (A watch is set over him, and the guards see to it that he doesn’t lean against the wall, and if he goes to sleep and falls over he is given a kick and straightened up.) Sometimes even one day of standing is enough to deprive a person of all his strength and to force him to testify to anything at all.”
What wimp wrote that? Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who documented “long time standing” as a method used by the Soviet Union in the gulag.
“Sleep deprivation” also sounds mild enough to avoid the moniker of “torture”. Here is one account of such an alternative questioning method, in which a prisoner “is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire to sleep, to sleep just a little, not to get up, to lie, to rest, to forget . . . Anyone who has experienced the desire knows that not even hunger or thirst are comparable with it”.
Again, which whiny liberal wrote those words?
The answer is Menachem Begin, former Israeli prime minister and a former terrorist himself. He is also describing the methods used by the Soviets in Siberia, where they imprisoned him in 1939.
We know that one prisoner in Guantanamo Bay was forced to go without sleep for 48 of 55 consecutive days and nights.
He was also manacled naked to a chair in a cell that was air-conditioned to around 50F and had cold water poured on him repeatedly, until hypothermia set in. Doctors treated him when he neared permanent physical damage.
According to the president of the United States, this is not “severe mental or physical pain or suffering”. This is an “alternative interrogation method”. This is not torture. it is “the programme”.
And so Latin words fall upon the West’s moral high ground “like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details”.
If only George Orwell were still alive. If only all of this weren’t actually true.