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In George’s Words


“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”

—George Orwell, Politics and the English Language


We hear many splendid examples of political language whenever President George W. Bush speaks about his right to torture prisoners. Bush is known to speak simply, but he’s also quite delicate in his choice of words. He never actually uses the word torture, except to deny that he ever permits torture.

Back in 2005 the president was asked about reports of secret CIA prisons overseas where prisoners were tortured. He said, “We are finding terrorists and bringing them to justice. We are gathering information about where the terrorists may be hiding. We are trying to disrupt their plots and plans. Anything we do . . . to that end in this effort, any activity we conduct, is within the law. We do not torture.”

Meanwhile, Bush was vigorously supporting an attack led by Vice President Dick Cheney to kill a proposed ban on torture. Or, as Bush described it, “We’re working with Congress to make sure that as we go forward, we make it possible, more possible, to do our job.” Only in a country befuddled by a half-dozen years of cognitive dissonance can such statements sound as if they make sense.

Cheney failed in his attempt to block or mutilate the bill, and the president signed it into law during the last week of 2005. But George W. Bush is a sly one. Before his signature was dry on the law forbidding torture, he signed another document giving himself the right to bypass that law. As he said in the signing statement, “The executive branch shall construe [the law] in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President . . . as Commander in Chief.”

What does “constitutional authority of the President” mean? Alas, not what you might think. A senior administration official clarified the language by saying that the president intended to reserve the right to use harsher methods in special situations involving national security. Now, if you’ve used all methods of interrogation permitted by law, and you then go on to use “harsher methods,” what do you suppose ordinary folks call those harsher methods?

The president and his confederates had hoped they were through hunting for fig-leaf phrases to cover torture, but the subject never went away. In June, the Supreme Court struck down Bush’s military tribunals, saying they violated constitutional and international law, so Congress and the White House had to draft a new law regarding detainees with rules about interrogation techniques and trials.

The president and his friends had to talk about that unmentionable subject of torture—I mean, harsh treatment—all over again. This time the rhetoricians came up with some dazzling phrases. The president, they said, didn’t want to change or reinterpret the U.S. Constitution or the Geneva Convention, he merely wanted to “clarify” those documents for his “professionals.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice predicted that the president and Congress would agree on a law that “gives the professionals, the people who actually interrogate, clarity on what is legal and what is not.” If it weren’t for our president you might never have known that the fellow inducing hypothermia in his sleep-deprived victim is, well, like a lawyer or a surgeon—a professional.

Bush questioned the Geneva Convention rule that prisoners shall not be subject to “outrages upon human dignity.” He said, “That’s a statement that is wide open to interpretation. And what I am proposing is that there be clarity in the law so that our professionals will have no doubt that that which they are doing is legal.” President Bush is more fastidious than his Secretary of State and scrupulously avoids the word interrogation or interrogators, and limits himself to “our professionals.”

According to news reports, the CIA has tortured, or has caused to be tortured, a number of terror suspects. Such incidents are difficult to verify. In September, Canadian judicial authorities reported that a Canadian citizen, falsely accused of terrorism, was picked up in the United States, held for questioning for 12 days, not allowed to speak to the Canadian Consul, then flown by jet to Jordan and driven to Syria. He was beaten, forced to confess to having trained in Afghanistan—where he never has been—and then kept in a coffin-size dungeon for 10 months before he was released.

At the end of September, the Republican- controlled House and Senate agreed on a terrorism bill that established rules for the interrogation and trials of suspects. Senate bill S3930 isn’t an easy read, but some things seem clear. The bill shrinks the definition of torture and generously enlarges the definition of enemy combatant. It forbids detainees to challenge the legality of their detention, prevents any legal action based on the Geneva Convention, and prevents the U.S. courts from reviewing anything in the system except the verdict. It allows the president to define abusive treatment, forbids “torture,” permits “coercion,” and allows “coerced” evidence and secret evidence to be used in trials.

Some Republicans who resisted President Bush’s attempt to have his own way on everything cheered the bill as a satisfying compromise. If so, it’s a compromise between George W. Bush and the Constitution. Virtually all Democrats who voted against the bill—surprise!—immediately had their patriotism questioned. House Speaker Dennis Hastert cried that opposition Democrats were “coddling terrorists” and “voted today in favor of more rights for terrorists.”

The bill will do absolutely nothing to catch terrorists or protect U.S. citizens. But Republicans hope it will be useful in smearing Democrats who refused to weaken the Constitution as “weak on terror.” President Bush recently characterized Democrats as the cowardly party of “cut-and-run.” George Orwell, who had a deep understanding of politicians and their speeches, also noted that political language was designed “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

—Gene Mirabelli

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