By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Calling torture torture

Alicia Shepard is as sharp a media observer as they come. A longtime writer for the American Journalism Review and the author of “Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate,” she is a serious and respected voice.

That said, I’m scratching my head over how wrong Shepard gets it on NPR’s refusal to use the term “torture” to describe the “enhanced interrogation techniques” practiced during the Bush years. Shepard, now NPR’s ombudsman, writes:

I recognize that it’s frustrating for some listeners to have NPR not use the word torture to describe certain practices that seem barbaric. But the role of a news organization is not to choose sides in this or any debate. People have different definitions of torture and different feelings about what constitutes torture. NPR’s job is to give listeners all perspectives, and present the news as detailed as possible and put it in context.

Let’s forget “certain practices” and focus on just one: waterboarding, long recognized as torture. In November 2007, Sen. John McCain pointed out that the United States executed Japanese officers after World War II for waterboarding American prisoners of war.

And when McCain was challenged, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Web site investigated McCain’s assertion. Its conclusion: McCain was right — a number of Japanese officers were hanged, and others were sentenced to long prison terms, because they had engaged in waterboarding.

Shepard writes that rather than describing waterboarding as torture, it makes more sense just to say what happened: “To me, it makes more sense to describe the techniques and skip the characterization…. A basic rule of vivid writing is: ‘Show, Don’t Tell.'”

All right. Perhaps NPR can eschew the T-word and instead describe waterboarding as “an interrogation technique once considered so heinous by the United States that it hanged Japanese officers for doing it to Americans.”

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“This is genocide. This is Hitler.”


  1. Michael Pahre

    Once NPR finally decides to call torture torture, I think they (and the rest of the MSM) should start calling: "detainees" and "enemy combatants" as Prisoners-of-War (which was a ruse in an attempt to get around the Geneva Conventions); the "War on Terror" some other name that doesn't have the word "war" in it; and all the various military campaigns/battles/wars in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., by some name other than the silly ones thought up by PR hacks in government/military ("Operation Desert Storm", "Operation Iraqi Freedom", etc.).

  2. Bill Baar

    My Dad fought the Japanese Phillipines. I knew guys who survived Bataan and captavity. Every so often my Dad would take me to Bataan Drive here in Maywood Illinois just to remind me it was the Illinois National Guard who were captured in Bataan because America dropped its guard (as NK gets ready to launch missles towards HI for the 4th). IIf the Japenese had treated American POWs as we have treated those in Gitmo.. I knew so many brave survivors who would have been so thankful for just a few rounds of waterboarding.

  3. LFNeilson

    Bill,There's no denying that the Bataan march was criminal.That led to the Geneva Accords. The standards must not be dropped. There's no allowing for inhumane treatment of prisoners.There's no sense pursuing a downward spiral on treatment of POW's. There's no advantage to be gained by revenge. Torturing detainees only puts a stamp of approval on the horrid actions of 60+ years ago and an invitation for such tactics to be used against our own soldiers.zzzz

  4. Bill Baar

    POW's aren't sent too criminal trials.If you want to treat the detainess as POWs then they should be held for the duration.A Criminal Trial is a sham. Note Obama refers to trials followed by convictions. You need to talk with some survivors of Japenese POW camps about "revenge". I lived in a Community that sent a lot of guys to Bataan with the Guard so I've met a few.PS The Accords are far older than WWII… google for the history.

  5. Bill Baar

    PS…Proviso East High Schools webpage on Bataan. Great job on local history. Check the books section on memoirs. I recommend the interviews knew some of these men and would consider it a profound disgrace to have suggested to them what we've done it Gitmo is in the same moral universe to what they gave for America and the World at Bataan and after……I would feel fouled for approaching them with that.

  6. Bill Baar

    PS Obama's conviction before trial comments on Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani or detainee, we can't give these guys fair trials in any civilized sense. Military Tribunals to verify they're combatants and threats, and then if Yes, they stay in the cage for the duration.That's what happens when you declare War on the United States and then captured.I'm done.

  7. zadig

    That's your justification, Bill? Any treatment of prisoners is OK as long as we're not as bad as Bataan? You really have a much lower opinion of the United States than I do, I guess.Last time I checked, we were a nation of laws. We don't treat prisoners humanely because we expect they will, too — we treat them humanely because that's what humane, lawful people do.If waterboarding was criminal behavior for which the enemy was executed in WW II, it's criminal behavior now when the US gov't does it.As for trials, there are/were innocent people in Guantanamo Bay. You can say "combatants and threats" all you want, but holding innocent people prisoner is a wrong that must be righted as soon as it's identified. Unfortunately, sane people identified these wrongs years ago, but the Bush Administration was in charge then. No more.Try to have higher expectations for your country than "they tried to hurt us so we get to mistreat them now," would you please?

  8. MeTheSheeple

    zadig: Thank you.

  9. mike_b1

    Bill, it's exactly that mindset that got us 9/11'd. Sooner or later, someone has to say "enough."

  10. Bill Baar

    That's your justification, Bill? Any treatment of prisoners is OK as long as we're not as bad as Bataan? You really have a much lower opinion of the United States than I do, I guess.think… pleasePOWs are not criminals.Combatants fighting outside the rules of war are not POWs.This per the Geneva conventions.POWs have clear rules of treatment outlined in the conventions.Conbatants-fightint-outside-the-rules-of-war have little in the way of rules. That's what got the Administration in some trouble is they sent the lawyers off packing to research and give opinions. The major question being what can be asked of a combatant-fighting outside-the-rules-of-war beyone name, rank, and serial number allowewd if they were fighting outside the rules of war.I don't believe the combatants we have in Gitmo can receive "fair" civil trials. I think such trials are sham trials in the way Nuremburg where sham trials (I'm with William O. Douglas if people remember him.)Therefore, I would prefer we treat the Gitmo detainees as POWs, held for the duration until Bin Laden or his successor issues the Fatwa of Surrender. The only difference is I would accept harsh interrogation to ask questions beyond those that could be asked of POWs.Oddly, I think the Gitmo detainiees will spend less time in cages this way, then shoe-bomber Reed, or Padilla who will spend the rest of their lives in super-max isolation. Convicted by Juries that no way would find them "not guilty", 'cause after all, even the President of the United States has found them Guilty per my example before they've even made it to court.It's not that complicated really. Creating a new class of "detainees" to cover this class of combatant better than pretending there is no nether world between Criminal and POW and just shooting these guys on the battlefield or handing them to the Afghanis which is where I think we're headed under Obama so we don't have to deal with the problem

  11. Michael Pahre

    Bill, you wrote, "POW's aren't sent too [sic] criminal trials."The Third Convention describes the parameters under which POWs can be tried for crimes, i.e., criminal trials (see beginning in Article 82). Those trials are explicitly allowed to be either civilian or military tribunal (subject to certain requirements).So, yes, POWs can be sent to criminal trials in a manner that is consistent with international law.There is no reason that such a trial must be a sham; it is only the narrow-minded way that some authorities conduct trials that makes those trials into shams.

  12. Bill Baar

    Yes Michael, they can be tried for crimes they commit as POWs under detention. If they murder another prisoner, a guard, any crimes committed as POWs under our jurisdiction.What should not be done is tried as criminals for their acts-of-war, and those are the kinds of trials we're sending these guys too. I think that kind of trial is a sham. I think Richard Reid (the shoe bomber), or Jose Padialla, cannot face "fair trials" in the United States for their acts of War Against the United States.We've tried to make exceptions for crimes against humanity with Nuremburg and the other examples, but what happens is after the war, when the passions subside, the lust for trying these guys pass.Witness mess with the Malmedy war crimes trial and the eventual release of those convicted.Obama is right. Indefinite detainment for the duration.Then resettlement I suppose, perhapes in the United States even.. I lived in a neigborhood with a few German and Italian POWs who decided to stay put in Illinois than go home, and we're the sort of country that said yes to that.

  13. Bill Baar

    There is no reason that such a trial must be a sham…So what kind of lawyer won't request a change of venue for someone at war with the people of the United States? How in the world can we give a fair trial in the United States to anyone like that? I don't think it's possible. That Obama himself speaks of trial and conviction in the same breath speaks that.

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