Sunday, March 9, 2008

The word of the day

William Safire sez:

Some locutions begin as bland bureaucratic euphemisms to conceal great crimes. As their meanings become clear, these collocations gain an aura of horror. In the past century, final solution and ethnic cleansing were phrases that sent a chill through our lexicon. In this young century, the word in the news — though not yet in most dictionaries — that causes much wincing during debate is the verbal noun waterboarding.

If the word torture, rooted in the Latin for “twist,” means anything (and it means “the deliberate infliction of excruciating physical or mental pain to punish or coerce”), then waterboarding is a means of torture. The predecessor terms for its various forms are water torture, water cure and water treatment.


Why did boarding take over from cure, treatment and torture? Darius Rejali, the author of the recent book “Torture and Democracy” and a professor at Reed College, has an answer: “There is a special vocabulary for torture. When people use tortures that are old, they rename them and alter them a wee bit. They invent slightly new words to mask the similarities. This creates an inside club, especially important in work where secrecy matters. Waterboarding is clearly a jailhouse joke. It refers to surfboarding” — a word found as early as 1929 — “they are attaching somebody to a board and helping them surf. Torturers create names that are funny to them.”
The image is from the same Safire column. Safire's concise definition of torture is certainly as good as any - someone wanting anything more detailed might use the UN General Assembly's definition:
"any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”
In the case of waterboarding, the name might be relatively new, but its practice has a lengthy history. One thing that Safire does provide is yet another example of how an evil practice such as torture can be made to seem more palatable - by trivializing it through euphemisms and inside jokes.

One can hope that at least a few Americans read Safire's column, and in doing so face an important truth about US treatment of its military prisoners - namely that no matter how torture is dressed up, it is still a fundamentally evil practice.

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