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