Listening to Diane Rehm the other
morning as she and her panelists turned the horrors of Abu Ghraib
into just another matter of politics, policy, and process brought
to mind the question: what if the prisoners had been Jewish and
the time 70 years ago and the place Germany? How would Diane
Rehm have handled that story?
It is not just our arguments, but
our words, that reveal us. For example, the panelists --- two
from the Washington Post publishing empire and one a rightwing
law prof and sometime adviser to Donald Rumsfeld (though passed
off merely as being with the Council on Foreign Relations) ---
clearly did not like the word 'torture,' with Newsweek's Michael
Hirsh favoring "these techniques." Rehm even had a
hard time with another word, referring to "the scandal ---
if you will."
They likewise discussed the Geneva
convention against torture and other abuses as though morality
were simply a matter of international legalisms --- with humans
permitted to engage in any act not prohibited by specific mention
on paper of the particular cruelty or status of the victim. Thus,
if you were not in the protected class of combatants then, one
gathered, it was fine for Donald Rumsfeld to do what he wished
to your genitals or your mind.
Diane Rehm is not alone. Here is
a truly remarkable example from another icon of the Washington
establishment, Jim Lehrer, as he was interviewed by Chris Matthews
about the failure of the media to critically analyze the basis
for the Iraq war:
Lehrer: The word occupation, keep
in mind, Chris, was never mentioned in the run-up to the war.
It was liberation. This was a war of liberation, not a war of
occupation. So as a consequence, those of us in journalism never
even looked at the issue of occupation.
Lehrer: Because it just didn't occur
to us. We weren't smart enough to do it.
Just how smart do you have to be
not to realize that when you invade a country successfully, you're
going to end up occupying it?
But again, Lehrer was not alone,
Antonia Zerbisias writes in the Toronto Star that "I did
a quick Dow Jones database search on 'exit strategy' for the
first three months of last year and came up with 316 references
--- the vast majority of them referring to Saddam's exit strategy
for avoiding war and/or being killed or captured. Not very scientific,
of course. But it indicates that, while the media cheered U.S.
troops going in, few thought about getting them out."
In Washington these days, morality
is defined not by philosophy or principles but by restrictive
words written by lawyers and ambiguous phrases concocted by public
relations experts. Politicians, their academic groupies in the
think tanks, and the media accept these words and phrases with
little question. Thus justice becomes not a matter of broad decency
but of narrow definition and indefinable euphemism.
The problem is the one that Edgar
Alan Power described: "By ringing small changes on the words
leg-of-mutton and turnip, .... I could 'demonstrate' that a turnip
was, is, and of right ought to be, a leg-of-mutton."
For example, for centuries ordinary
people have known exactly what a bribe was. The Oxford English
Dictionary found it described in 1528 as meaning to "to
influence corruptly, by a consideration." Another 16th century
definition describes bribery as "a reward given to pervert
the judgment or corrupt the conduct" of someone.
In more modern times, the Meat Inspection
Act of 1917 prohibits giving "money or other thing of value,
with intent to influence" to a government official.
But that was before the lawyers
and the politicians got around to rewriting the meaning of bribery.
And so we came to a time a few years ago when the Supreme Court
actually ruled that a law prohibiting the giving of gifts to
a public official "for or because of an official act"
didn't mean anything unless you knew exactly what the official
act was. In other words, bribery was only illegal if the bribee
was dumb enough to give you a receipt.
The media has gone along with the
scam, virtually dropping the word from its vocabulary in favor
of phrases like "inappropriate gift," or "the
appearance of a conflict of interest."
Another example is the remarkable
redefinition of money to mean speech. You can test this one out
by making a deal with a prostitute and if a cop comes along,
simply say, "Officer, I wasn't giving her money, I was just
giving her a speech." If that doesn't work you can try giving
more of that speech to the cop. Or try telling the IRS next April
that "I have the right to remain silent." And so forth.
I wouldn't advise it.
The verbal blanding of the brutality
in which the Bush regime has engaged is a form of acquiescence
and even encouragement. Further silent support of official cruelty
can be found in the broad media refusal -- save a few exceptions
such as the New York Times' Fox Butterfield -- to report parallel
violent mistreatment of those in domestic prisons.
You don't just need techniques and
instruments to torture. You also need the right words to justify
it. Marshall Rosenberg, who teaches non-violent communication,
was struck in reading psychological interviews with Nazi war
criminals not by their abnormality, but that they used a language
denying choice: "should," "one must," "have
to." For example, Adolph Eichmann was asked, "Was it
difficult for you to send these tens of thousands of people their
death?" Eichmann replied, "To tell you the truth, it
was easy. Our language made it easy."
Asked to explain, Eichmann said,
"My fellow officers and I coined our own name for our language.
We called it amtssprache --- 'office talk.'" In office talk
"you deny responsibility for your actions. So if anybody
says, 'Why did you do it?' you say, 'I had to.' 'Why did you
have to?' 'Superiors' orders. Company policy. It's the law.'"
Just like "those techniques"
at Abu Ghraib.