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What's in a Word Torture?

OPINION | May 23, 2004

By Adam Hochshild (NYT) Op-Ed

NY Times News Service

Adam Hochschild is the author of King Leopold's Ghost and the forthcoming Bury the Chains, a history of the British antislavery movement.

As Orwell pointed out most effectively, governments control language as well as people. Since the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke, our government, from the highest officials in Washington to Army prison guards in Baghdad, have used every euphemism they can think of to avoid the word that clearly characterizes what some of our soldiers and civilian contractors have been doing: torture.

"What has been charged so far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture," said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "I'm not going to address the 'torture' word."

And nobody else seems to want to address it either. Rather, we are told, military police officers at Abu Ghraib were encouraged to treat the prisoners so as to create "favorable conditions" for interrogations. What does this mean? Give the prisoners English lessons? New clothes? Come on. In any bureaucracy, orders or clearance to do something beyond the law always comes in code. For those in senior positions, deniability is vital.

Some years ago, I heard a man who had narrowly escaped the death squads in El Salvador explain how deniability worked there. "The military will call a meeting of commanders," he said. "They will say, 'You know, this man David X is getting to be a threat to us.' Then the commanders, when they have their meetings with their own officers, they'll say, 'You know, today we heard of this man who's making a lot of trouble for us.' Then when those officers meet with the sergeants, his name will be floated again. And you can assume David X will soon be dead."

Shortly afterward I interviewed a general who had some of the most notorious Salvadoran death squads under his command. Death squads? Orders for executions? Of course not! He showed me a loose-leaf notebook, carefully listing complaints of human rights abuses with a chart showing how each case had been investigated.

Pentagon officials doubtless have their own versions of that general's loose-leaf notebook to show to human rights investigators. Obviously, no coded orders, suggestions or hints given to the Abu Ghraib prison guards will appear in them. And, no, these were not orders for deaths -- but they were for actions similarly beyond the law. What the paper trail will have, however, are the euphemisms for what was actually done:

"Sleep management." This apparently benign term -- doctors use it in discussing insomnia -- disguises a form of torture that has long been popular because it requires no special equipment and leaves no marks on the body. Widely used in the Middle Ages on suspected witches by inquisitors, it was called the tormentum insomniae. Hundreds of years later, in the interrogation rooms of Stalin's secret police, it was known as the "conveyor belt," because relays of interrogators would question a prisoner, day and night, until he or she signed the desired statement and named enough co-conspirators.

After being kept awake for a hundred hours or so, almost anybody will confess to almost anything, from flying through the night sky on a broomstick to being a capitalist spy. Soviet prisoners of the 1930's had to sign each page of their interrogation record. In the files that have been released from archives in recent years, you can sometimes see how a prisoner's signature, clear and firm on the first day, gradually turns into an indecipherable scrawl as the sleepless nights roll by.

"Water-boarding." This, as we now know, does not involve water skis, but holding prisoners under water for long enough that they think they are drowning. Again, interrogators favor it because after the prisoner has coughed the water out of his lungs, it leaves no identifiable marks. Reports by human rights groups on countries including Brazil, Ethiopia and El Salvador have noted the prevalence of "simulated drowning" or "near drowning."

"Stress positions." What is a stress position? Mike Xego, a former political prisoner in South Africa, once demonstrated one for me. He bent down and clasped his hands in front of him as if they were handcuffed, and then, using a rolled-up newspaper, showed me how apartheid-era police officers would pin his elbows behind his knees with a stick, forcing him into a permanent crouch. "You'd be passed from one hand to another. Kicked. Tipped over," he explained. "The blood stops moving. You scream and scream and scream until there is no voice."

This begs an obvious question: when the Abu Ghraib detainees were in "stress positions," were they then kicked, tipped over, rolled around like soccer balls? We do not yet know, but chances are that if the guards were told to create "favorable conditions" for interrogation, the prisoners were not lectured politely about the benefits of human rights and the rule of law that the United States is supposedly bringing to Iraq.

Granted, the torture of prisoners under Saddam Hussein was incomparably more widespread and often ended in death. The same is true in dozens of other regimes around the world. But torture is torture. It permanently scars the victim even when there are no visible marks on the body, and it leaves other scars on the lives of those who perform it and on the life of the nation that allowed and encouraged it. Those scars will be with us for a long time.