by Jonathan Wallace

When I began publishing the Ethical Spectacle in January 1995, one of my chief concerns was with the misuse of language. I wrote in the mission statement that the Spectacle would examine "what commonly used words and phrases really mean, as contrasted to what they appear to mean."

One of the most stunning and obvious examples of the political distortion of language is the Bush administration's redefinition of "torture" to exclude certain practices it is currently using against Al Qaeda detainees. In the New York Times for June 27, 2004, is the following:

Mr. Mohammed was "water-boarded"--strapped to a board and immersed in water-- a technique used to make the subject believe that he might be drowned, officials said.

"Aides say Memo Backed Coercion Already in Use", p. A1. The article describes an August 2002 memo produced by the Justice Department which "suggested that there were few limits short of causing the death of a prisoner."

The various international and domestic laws which bind the United States government not to use torture are summarized in a useful memo on the Human Rights Watch site. These include the Geneva Conventions, a 1994 law Congress passed specifically to ban torture by U.S. forces and, of course, the Fifth Amendment to the United States constitution barring "cruel and unusual" punishment. Faced with a simple and clear set of legal and ethical standards, the Bush administration obviously chose to slide out from under them by adjusting the meaning of the operative word, "torture".

Webster's ( defines torture as

Infliction of severe physical pain as a means of punishment or coercion. An instrument or a method for inflicting such pain. Excruciating physical or mental pain; agony: the torture of waiting in suspense. Something causing severe pain or anguish.

Our government's defiant position that dipping a man's head in water to frighten him into revealing information does not inflict "excruciating mental pain" boggles the imagination. The mere fact that such an argument can be made suggests either that the administration is desperate or that the ethical-linguistic environment is very degraded (both are probably true).

In an intensely distressing book about the Holocaust called The Tremendum-- a rational howl of anguish if there ever was--Arthur Cohen postulated that the ethical debasement of language in western society was a process which began long ago.

The debasement of language, the stripping of its shading and moral intensity began in the West long before Hitler and continues after he is gone. It will help us to explain a kind of cauterization of conscience by the use of metaphor and euphemism; to understand that in official Nazi language the extermination of Jews was precisely that-- the disinfectant of lice, the burning of garbage, the incineration of trash, and hence language never had to say exactly what acts its words commanded: kill, burn, murder that old Jew, that middle-aged Jew, that child Jew.

The purposeful German adaptation of language to create minimizing euphemisms for horrible violence was memorably nicknamed "LTI" by linguist Victor Klemperer--"Lingua Tertii Imperii". The reason behind these types of language tricks is to undermine widely-held human standards. It would take a brave and unusually honest government official to announce that torture is justifiable. That might at least allow for an open dialog, in which we all agree on the terms and seek to reach a resolution on outcomes. Redefining the offending word so that it no longer threatens to interfere with violent objectives is an attempt to murder such debate in the cradle. The end result is that words become entirely empty of content. Eventually they incorporate their opposites; "torture" and "humane treatment" become one and the same, so that words mean everything and nothing. At all times during the Pinochet era, when tens of thousands of suspected leftists were tormented, raped and murdered in camps, Chile's constitution contained the words "Torture shall not be applied."

Let Primo Levi--Auschwitz inmate, chemist, writer, the ultimate civilized human, and eventual suicide--have the last word, as he has on so many things (from The Drowned and the Saved):

It is an obvious observation that where violence is inflicted on man, it is also inflicted on language.