Whitesburg KY
Partly sunny
Partly sunny

Media Beat

Question for journalism: Is torture really torture?



Is “waterboarding” torture? Inquiring media minds want to know. Or maybe they don’t.

The countless reporters and pundits who use careful euphemisms like “a harsh interrogation technique” to describe water torture would gain sudden clarity if they were subjected to it themselves. A minute or two of the drowning experience, under the careful supervision of a duly constituted agency, would concentrate the journalistic mind. And the conclusion, no doubt, would be: Wow, this is really torture.

Likewise, the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who voted to approve attorney-general nominee Michael Mukasey would gain a different perspective if they were on the receiving end of the torture that Mukasey refused to call torture. And, for good measure, while under water they’d probably experience an epiphany as to whether “waterboarding” is actually illegal.

The supreme legal document of the nation, the United States Constitution, does of course forbid “cruel and unusual punishment” in the Bill of Rights. The way things are going, torture may not qualify as “unusual.” But no one can credibly finesse past the category of “cruel.”

A normally rational lawmaker on the Judiciary Committee, however, couldn’t resist the contortions and machinations worthy of a genuine sadist. No doubt Sen. Charles Schumer was hoping that the usual media vagueness about the U.S. government’s known practices of torture would stand him in good stead as he stood by his man to clean up the morass in the Justice Department.

“The fact of the matter is, if Mukasey is rejected, we’ll have an acting U.S. attorney (general) who’ll do nothing,” Schumer explained lamely. “So even on the grounds of torture alone, you’re probably better off with Mukasey who said he’s going to look at it and study it.”

Hey, that’s reassuring. Imagine: The chief law-enforcement official of the land will be on record as actually saying that when the U.S. government’s CIA engages in torture, he’s going to look at it and study it.

“I wish he would have said it’s illegal,” Schumer added. “I think it’s illegal.” So the senator voted for a nominee to head the Justice Department who couldn’t bring himself to say that torture is illegal.

After lauding Mukasey as a great guy for the job, Schumer was ill-positioned to acknowledge that new testimony from the same guy indicated he has scruples roughly equivalent to the ethics of a legal counsel for Torquemada, the grand inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition. Nominated by President Bush, our nation’s de facto torturer-inchief, Mukasey displayed loyalty that was as evident as Schumer’s subsequent evasions were notable.

The career politician reached into a timeworn bag of rhetorical tricks and pulled out a couple of doozies. The senator professed to be reassured that Mukasey indicated he would actually enforce any upcoming explicit law enacted to prohibit “waterboarding” – as if the Eighth Amendment wasn’t clear enough to bar the practice. As if “cruel” punishment is OK so long as the exact technique of torture isn’t specifically forbidden by an act of Congress signed by the president.

“In explaining his decision,” The Associated Press reported, “Schumer said he took comfort from a private assurance from Mukasey that, were Congress to pass a law outlawing waterboarding by any government agency, Mukasey would enforce it.” But AP noted that “Congress has wrestled with the issue before, and failed to pass such a law. And even if it did, it is not clear that President Bush would ever sign it.”

How has public discourse about torture sunk to such an abysmal moral level? There are many answers to that question. But one of them is surely that, overall, news coverage by U.S. media has failed in a basic way – failing to call torture what it is.

©2007 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

Leave a Reply