NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard has responded to my item of last week in which I criticized her for defending NPR’s policy of refusing to refer to waterboarding as “torture.” She writes:
Yes, President Obama and AG Eric Holder have said that waterboarding was torture. I’d personally call it torture. But if you were an editor at the Globe, would you say that someone tortured another person? Or would you want to use a direct or indirect quote, i.e., “John Smith said the guard tortured him”?
I’m not trying to say what is and is not torture, but is every abuse classified as torture now or are there degrees? When a police officer throws a suspect to the ground and handcuffs them, is that torture or simply abuse?
Would it be better to, say, describe the technique and then say some call it torture? I do not think enhanced interrogation techniques is acceptable either. That’s why I come down on describing the technique and adding that some call it torture.
Shepard asks, so I’ll attempt a few answers.
I’m not sure what Shepard thinks there is to gain by skiing down the slippery slope from waterboarding to getting rough with a suspect during an arrest. In my original item, I strictly limited my remarks to waterboarding, recognized as torture by just about everyone on the planet.
The opinions of Obama and Holder are entirely unnecessary to determining whether waterboarding is torture.
As John McCain and others have pointed out, the United States executed several Japanese military officers for waterboarding American prisoners of war after World War II. And as I wrote last week, if NPR really can’t bring itself to use the T-word, perhaps it can describe waterboarding as “an interrogation technique once considered so heinous by the United States that it hanged Japanese officers for doing it to Americans.”
So yes, if I were an editor at the Boston Globe, you’re damn right I would refer to waterboarding as torture. That seems about as solid as referring to oil as a fossil fuel, or baseball as a sport. By eschewing the term “torture” to describe a practice that the entire international community regards as such, NPR is not being neutral. Rather, it is embracing a euphemism that places the network squarely on the side of the torturers and their enablers.
NPR should not use enhanced interrogation techniques on the English language.
Thursday update: I was not as precise as I wanted to be when I wrote about “everyone on the planet,” as I was in a rush and had lousy Internet access. Last week, Bob Garfield of “On the Media” interviewed Shepard and made the point I was trying to make:
The U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights says that waterboarding is torture. The International Committee of the Red Cross have called what the U.S. did “torture.” Waterboarding is unambiguously in violation of the International Convention on Torture, which has been ratified by 140-some countries.
The United States is among those 140 countries, but, as the Associated Press reported in 2002, the Bush administration sought to block enforcement of the measure when inspectors wanted to visit Guantánamo.
Torture is not only a moral problem, but it has a precise legal meaning that most definitely encompasses waterboarding.