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Imperative security internee

Doublespeak vs Unspeak

At Daily Kos, an article by Medcat compares my work on Unspeak favourably with a recent Cato Institute paper called Doublespeak and the War on Terrorism. Well, as I argue in the introduction to my book, “doublespeak” is merely a euphemism for lying – and its notion of saying one thing while meaning another risks letting politicians off the hook. All too often, they say one thing and really mean it, as with Bush’s little narrative about evil men being Questioned by Experts.

The Cato paper, by Timothy Lynch, criticizes the language of “Homeland Security”, “national security”, “enemy combatant” and so on, yet – very oddly – it uncritically adopts the vocabulary of the “war on terror” as an apt description of what is going on. “War on terror” is the Unspeak elephant in the room. Still, some of Lynch’s observations are astute, and I did enjoy learning about a new species of person called an “Imperative Security Internee”, apparently a newly made-up category of enemy within, to whom the government will do anything it likes until the Supreme Court explicitly rules that it can’t.

It seems in general to be a prevalent attitude in the US Administration that novelty defeats law. Simply dreaming up something new on the spot, like a category of prisoner or a method of torture, renders old laws that do not mention the new thing obsolete, and gives the government carte blanche until legislators explicitly criminalize it. As Lynch aptly asks:

Should the Supreme Court rule that the Bill of Rights applies to “imperative security internees,” what is to stop the government from inventing another label for its prisoners?

I think the answer to that is “nothing”.


Third awakening

No sleep till Brooklyn

George W. Bush senses there has been a “third awakening” in America. Three naps a day is pretty good for a President: even two naps is not bad, if you count getting up in the morning as the first awakening. Oh, sorry, by “third awakening” he actually meant a resurgence of “faith” in America. What kind of “faith”? Well, the First and Second Great Awakenings were both outbreaks of evangelical Christianity, but let’s not be so specific this time. Relating the “third awakening” to what Bush called, in the same press conference, our present “confrontation between good and evil” does sound specifically Apocalyptic, though, doesn’t it? It is the Rapture, the End of Days, one bugle-blast from Judgment. Perhaps it is because I am sleepy, but in my mind, “third awakening” conjures the slow opening of a Third Eye, right in the middle of Bush’s forehead.



Rings of fire

Hugo Williams’s ever-genial “Freelance” column in the Times Literary Supplement last week was about a novelist, A L Kennedy, doing stand-up comedy badly at the Edinburgh Festival:

One of her best books is about bullfighting – an art form not dissimilar to stand-up, with its seductions and ‘moments of truth’.

Perhaps because I haven’t read Kennedy’s book, nor actually seen a bullfight (please comment if you have), I find it difficult to imagine how the systematic torture and killing of a dumb beast for the purposes of entertainment can quite qualify as an “art form”. No doubt there are “artistic” aspects to it, just as we may imagine a sniper stylizing and aestheticizing his use of the rifle, but that does not make his shooting an “art form” either. As for “seductions”, I am really at a loss.

This led me to wonder whether the term “bullfighting” itself is Unspeak. It speaks of heroic combat, while Unspeaking the fact that the bull is repeatedly lanced and harpooned by the supporting cast – the fluffers of the bullring, as it were – in order to weaken it and render it less dangerous before the matador reaches his climax. Well, I suppose no one ever called it “bull-fair-fighting”.


Not yet safe

Risk management, five years on

On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, George W Bush announced:

Today, we are safer, but we are not yet safe.

Naturally, it makes sense for the President to claim that Americans are safer because of strategic triumphs such as invading Iraq. It makes sense, too, for him to claim that they are not yet safe, because if they were, there would be no point in continuing the “war on terror”. How long, some Americans might have been wondering, should the war go on? Bush tossed out some clues:

It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century, and the calling of our generation […] We are in a war that will set the course for this new century — and determine the destiny of millions across the world. […] We are now in the early hours of this struggle between tyranny and freedom.

Looks like it’s going to last a good while longer, then. Is there no hope of an end? Well, there is the following charming picture:

We look to the day when moms and dads throughout the Middle East see a future of hope and opportunity for their children. And when that good day comes, the clouds of war will part, the appeal of radicalism will decline, and we will leave our children with a better and safer world.

This is a cunning feint. Bush at first seems to be describing a moment when the “war on terror” will be at an end – the clouds of war will part – but, curiously, he takes this back at the end of the very same sentence. After all, he is foreseeing only a safer world. Those paying attention since the beginning of the speech will have remembered that merely safer is not good enough. A world that is safer but not yet safe is hardly a world in which you can hang up your “war on terror” six-shooter . . .

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Terrorist act

A slip of the tongue?

George W Bush got confused:

And the United States Congress was right to renew the terrorist act – the Patriot Act. (Applause.) The Terrorist Prevention Act, called the Patriot Act.

Instead of giggling at another of the president’s losing battles with his teleprompter, let us see how the mistake illuminates the overall rhetorical strategy. Of course, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act of 2004 is quite separate from the Patriot Act, which gets a Pavlovian round of clapping at its very mention. No doubt it’s understandable that Bush conflates the various exciting pieces of terrorism legislation. He’s the decider, not a filing clerk. Evidently, too, he is fond of the idea of terrorist prevention, which may fruitfully be compared with Tony Blair’s recent call for “pre-birth” intervention against people who might become a “menace to society”.

Especially revealing, though, is that Bush’s first instinct was to call it the terrorist act. The word “terrorist” remains so fizzingly potent that simply prepending it to any phrase rhetorically justifies the idea proposed. (Remember, you can do anything you like to terrorist suspects.) Hence also Bush’s continuing reference to his program of warrantless wiretapping of American citizens as the terrorist surveillance program. But no one can completely govern the effect of his language, and herein lies a danger. After all, the simplest interpretation of such phrases is that they mean exactly what they say: that a terrorist act, or a terrorist surveillance program, is a piece of legislation that is intentionally terrorist, in that it aims to cow American citizens into docile compliance through fear of the all-seeing state. Hammering such phrases into the public ear, while unspeaking what appears to be their primary sense, is very clever indeed.

Update: via WIIIAI, the military commissions that the Administration wants Congress to legalize are now being called terrorist tribunals. Quite.


Questioned by experts

Bush tiptoes round torture

George W Bush yesterday confirmed the existence of secret CIA prisons for the interrogation of suspected terrorists:

Many are al Qaeda operatives or Taliban fighters trying to conceal their identities. And they withhold information that could save American lives. In these cases, it has been necessary to move these individuals to an environment where they can be held secretly, questioned by experts and, when appropriate, prosecuted for terrorist acts.

Questioned by experts is a very careful phrase. Are the subjects really only questioned? And what exactly is the expertise of these experts? Are they simply experts in asking questions, like TV quiz-show hosts? Or does their expertise extend to other areas?

It seems that it does. As the speech continues, Bush’s speechwriters pile up other dainty euphemisms. Faced with a subject who wouldn’t talk, “the CIA used an alternative set of procedures”. An alternative set of procedures? To what, we may wonder, was it an alternative? Presumably, to mere questioning. So being questioned by experts might involve an alternative set of procedures. Does procedure make you think of a medical practice, a physical intervention? You are letting your imagination run away with you.

Later on, Bush also referred to the most sensitive questioning. Are the experts doing the questioning the sensitive ones, a little like psychotherapists? Or is it a matter of exploiting the sensitive subjects? Are the men being questioned by experts thought to be sensitive in the sense of having finely tuned emotions, or is there a hint of exploiting physical sensitivity? Well, perhaps we are reading too much into mere words. Bush reassured his audience:

These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution and our treaty obligations. The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful. I cannot describe the specific methods used. I think you understand why. If I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe and lawful and necessary.

Ah, good, the alternative set of procedures consisted of authorized methods, of specific methods that were tough. But they were also lawful. Actually, as Chapter Seven of Unspeak documents in detail, the procedures were found to be lawful by the Department of Justice because the Department of Justice unilaterally redefined “torture” to include only acts that inflicted pain on the order of organ failure or death. Any violence that did not “rise” to this “level” was, by this new definition, not torture, even though it was torture according to an FBI observer in 2003 [pdf], and according to the Army’s own definition of torture in its Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation.

You might with reason wonder whether, if it was so uncontroversially true that these procedures were legal, why Bush decided to insist on all this in his speech yesterday. Hard to say, since he coyly refused to describe the specific methods. Well, we know that one such method has been “waterboarding”, whose name sounds sporty and whose actual effects are routinely downplayed. (See my post and the subsequent discussion on Alan Dershowitz over at Crooked Timber.) I suggest we need a new name for “waterboarding”: perhaps enforced partial drowning.

But please don’t mention what Donald Rumsfeld once squeamishly called “the torture word”. Bush said yesterday:

I want to be absolutely clear with our people and the world: The United States does not torture. It’s against our laws and it’s against our values. I have not authorized it and I will not authorize it. Last year my administration worked with Senator John McCain, and I signed into law the Detainee Treatment Act, which established the legal standards for treatment of detainees wherever they are held.

We can understand this better when we know that there is a special definition of “torture” that excludes all but the most hideous imaginable acts. Further, Bush appeals to McCain’s anti-torture amendment, yet mysteriously fails to mention (as WIIIAI notes) the signing statement he added to the bill when passing it into law. As I explained in this post, the signing statement said that Bush would “construe” the anti-torture strictures “in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief” – in other words, consistent with his belief, and that of his lawyers, that his wartime authority overrides any merely legal challenge.

In this way, Bush’s claim that the procedures were lawful and necessary is a clever bit of misdirection, reversing the real logic. Because, according to the administration’s lawyers, a regular invocation of “military necessity” automatically authorizes anything, the real underlying claim is: necessary therefore lawful.

Bush added yesterday that, in implementing the amended Detainee Treatment Act, he would “continue to use every lawful method to obtain intelligence”. Since, under the prevailing theory of administration lawyers, nothing done by the Commander in Chief during wartime can be unlawful (thank God for the “war on terror”), this simplifies nicely into a promise to continue using every method.

So let us sum up. The government will continue to have people questioned by experts in sessions of sensitive questioning, using a set of alternative procedures, procedures that are tough, necessary and lawful, according to a doctrine in which almost nothing can be unlawful: indeed, every method will continue to be used. You have to admire the delicacy with which Bush’s speechwriters tiptoed around the issue. Yet even through such a blizzard of euphemism and Unspeak, it is difficult to resist interpreting the real message as being this: we’re going to continue torturing people, and there’s nothing you can do about it.



Use your illusion

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is calling for a purge of “liberal and secular university professors”. Does he mean only those university professors who are both liberal and secular? Or that they go together, so that if one is liberal, one is necessarily secular too? In any case, it’s worrying news for poor old liberals, who can’t get a break from a Holocaust-denying theocrat any more than they can from Karl Rove. It hardly seems fair.

But wait, who are these “liberals” anyway? What does “liberal” actually mean when thus used as a term of contempt? Actually, it doesn’t matter what it means, as was pointed out long ago by Leszek Kolakowski . . .

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Insolence revolution

Improving the world through scorn

One of the tools available to a web-dictator such as myself shows which search terms people have been entering into google in order to arrive at the site. This can be very illuminating. I am happy that people searching for “failed asylum seekers” or “unspeak christian“, or even the evocative phrase “kamm terrorism“, end up here: that is as it should be. However, I feel I ought to apologise to those people who were also driven into my virtual arms by looking for information on “supernatural odour” (what does a ghost smell like? Happily, I have no idea) and – fascinatingly – “orwell on cereals“. (I regret to say that the Introduction offers no theory about whether George Orwell preferred cornflakes to muesli.) My favourite so far, however, is “insolence revolution blog”, which, once I had stared at it for a couple of seconds, I decided was miraculously appropriate.

Yes, this is an insolence revolution blog. Here at, I and my regular commenters are conspiring to foment an insolence revolution. Soon, insolence will be on the march, imposing the precious freedom of scorn for authority on all corners of this benighted globe. I say now: if you’re not with us in this war on deference, you’re against us.


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