The Torturous Logic of The New York Times

With President Bush's veto this weekend of a bill to outlaw the CIA's use of waterboarding, torture now becomes officially codified U.S. policy. But you'd never know it from the reading The New York Times.

At least, not the news pages. Yes, there was a prominent Times story this Sunday on the veto written by Washington-based reporter Steven Lee Meyers. But the only suggestion in the piece that we're actually talking about torture is the painful and intellectually insulting acrobatics and contortions that the reporter puts us through in avoiding any direct mention of the terrible T-word. The best Meyers can do is to refer to what he calls "harsh interrogation techniques." (You know, like calling really shoddy, third-rate journalism "something less than spectacular reporting").

As to waterboarding itself -- a centuries-old method of torture that became commonplace in the interrogation dungeons of various Latin American dictatorships a few decades back -- Meyers describes it blandly as "a technique in which restrained prisoners are threatened with drowning..." You know, like we tie your to hands to a chair with silk ribbons and wave a bucket of water in front of your nose instead of ...what? Maybe, actually tying you down to a board and, well, drowning you?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines drowning as "to kill by submerging and suffocating in water or another liquid." This is a precise definition of waterboarding with perhaps one asterisk: the torturer has the option of stopping the process right before death -- or proceeding until death occurs. Or did I miss something?

To the shame of the reporter and editors on this Times story, readers can find out the harsh truths about waterboarding torture in the very same Sunday edition of the paper, but a few pages deeper into the book. Former Nixon speechwriter and conservative pundit William Safire devotes his popular "On Language" column this week to the "bland bureaucratic euphemisms [that] conceal great crimes." The title of the column is, indeed, "Waterboarding." And Safire comes right to the point:

If the word torture, rooted in the Latin for "twist," means anything (and it means "the deliberate infliction of excruciating physical or mental pain to punish or coerce"), then waterboarding is a means of torture. The predecessor terms for its various forms are water torture, water cure and water treatment.

...Why did boarding take over from cure, treatment and torture? Darius Rejali, the author of the recent book "Torture and Democracy" and a professor at Reed College, has an answer: "There is a special vocabulary for torture. When people use tortures that are old, they rename them and alter them a wee bit. They invent slightly new words to mask the similarities. This creates an inside club, especially important in work where secrecy matters. Waterboarding is clearly a jailhouse joke. It refers to surfboarding" -- a word found as early as 1929 -- "they are attaching somebody to a board and helping them surf. Torturers create names that are funny to them."

Safire makes a chilling point. Our national political discourse, and our paper of record, have adopted the dehumanizing language of the torturers themselves rather than honestly describing the torture they inflict. How embarrassing can it get for the Times that its conservative columnist Safire is more willing to accurately portray the "great crimes" of a conservative administration that is its own "objective" news staff.

Talk about the gag reflex!