George F. Will, a columnist who arguably loves words too much, has written persuasively on the nomenclature of “enhanced interrogation techniques” which are central to the plot of a current movie, Zero Dark Thirty now playing in theaters, a movie (I haven’t seen it) which he says is “primarily about CIA operatives”. I find it an interesting subject for a man who has veered more to the right of late because the condoned use of torture by the Bush administration was unprecedented in modern American history. It was just one more symptom of how our government, instead of seeking to calm public fear of terrorism, exploited it to enhance and expand its power and size.
Ironic, is it not, that this should have been done in the name of a “conservative” political party which routinely promotes smaller and less-intrusive government? (I am speaking here of the creation of “Top Secret America“, including the expansion of the Homeland Security and Directorate of National Intelligence bureaucracies.) Will incisively refers to the movie, “A Few Good Men” and to George Orwell’s novel, “1984” as sources that have explored the issues of torture and the language associated with the limits to moral behavior in marshaling a collective defense against threats.
Orwell’s work was seminal on the issue of government control and language, so much so that both Western thought and language were permanently affected. Wikipedia even has a separate page for the word, “newspeak”, part of which says:
Newspeak is a fictional language in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, it refers to the deliberately impoverished language promoted by the state. Orwell explained the basic principles of the language in an essay included as an appendix to the novel. Newspeak is closely based on English but has a greatly reduced and simplified vocabulary and grammar. The totalitarian aim of the Party is to prevent any alternative thinking—”thoughtcrime”, or “crimethink” in the newest edition of Newspeak—by destroying any vocabulary that expresses such concepts as freedom, free enquiry, individualism, resistance to the authority of the state and so on. One character, Syme, says admiringly of the diminishing scope of the new language: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”
My dictionary defines torture in terms of inflicting pain, but I suggest that this does not go far enough. I think it should include the causing of excessive psychological anxiety and stress as well. And, come to think of it, fear and anxiety are principal components of the “technique” of waterboarding. Hypoxia induces extreme fear and anxiety. I can
personally relate to the psychological aspect of torture from the experience I had as a first-year Naval Academy Midshipman where “hazing” has a long tradition. It was common when I was there for plebes to be required, because of some infraction or failure, to “shove out”, which meant to assume a sitting position against a wall with no support under the buttocks. Sitting on this nonexistent “little green stool” had the effect of producing pain and muscle cramps, more for some than others depending on build and musculature. (I was a skinny, tall kid.) There were other equally painful activities as well but they all had one thing in common and that was the price of showing any weakness, i.e. a predictable increase in the intensity and frequency of punishment and the likelihood of expulsion as stress impacted academic grades.
In retrospect I feel that the psychological fear of failure is what made such hazing most like torture. After all, any plebe could resign at will. Some will say, rightly, that hazing is an appropriate filter for success in a highly competitive field, but I say that without safeguards and supervision the process easily transitions by excessive zeal, something inherent in a large segment of the population, into both mental and physical torture. When I went to USNA I detected no effective safeguards on these activities, nor was there even any official acknowledgment that extreme practices existed. A few suicides among entering classes each year appeared to be par for the course.
George Will in his column leaves me with the impression that despite his understanding of Orwell he yet condones torture in the context of dealing with terrorism. I don’t, because once government embraces it there is no effective limit on excessive zeal. Can you imagine a Congressional oversight committee routinely monitoring such interrogations? If the Bush administration intended torture as something morally justified, then why affix a newspeak name to it? Was Jack Nicholson’s character right, that society needs to be protected from the means that justify government’s defined ends? Not in my opinion. That is not the society in which I want to live. If government is permitted to hide torture, what else are they going to hide?