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The tools

What the ‘professionals’ need

In his press conference on Iraq yesterday, President George W. Bush emphasised the danger posed by “the enemy”:

These are lethal, cold-blooded killers. And we must do everything we can to protect the American people, including questioning detainees or listening to their phone calls from outside the country to inside the country. In other words, as you know, there was some recent votes on that issue. And the Democrats voted against giving our professionals the tools necessary to protect the American people.

Our professionals, also known as experts, are, as we have seen, those who conduct sessions of the most sensitive questioning, or torture. An interesting addition here is the concept of the tools. Doubtless we are not meant to think of anything so crude as power-drills or electric-shock devices. Perhaps an inclined table for the purposes of forced partial drowning is all that is needed. But there is a further implication of calling authorizations of torture or wiretapping of US citizens the tools: it shunts them out of the realm of moral discourse. Tools are simply functional objects to do one job or another. The question of what tool to use in most situations is not an ethical question but a technological one. Let the carpenter decide between bradawl and screwdriver: who are we to interfere with his craftsman’s nous?

Thus, to consider torture a “tool necessary to protect the American people” reflects a general view, particularly noticeable in Donald Rumsfeld’s command of the Pentagon (his geeky obsession with gadgets and “special forces”), that there are no ethical questions, only technological ones. Were it not an implicit violation of Godwin’s law, I might mention that such an attitude has historically been characteristic of totalitarian government. On this reading, however, Bush’s recent legislation prompts an interesting question. If he is blaming the tools that were already legal for not being sufficient for the job, does that make him a bad workman?

Bush was also asked about permanent bases in Iraq:

Any decisions about permanency in Iraq will be made by the Iraqi government. And, frankly, it’s not in much of a position to be thinking about what the world’s going to look like five or 10 years from now. They are working to make sure that we succeed in the short term. And they need our help. And that’s where our focus is. But remember, when you’re talking about bases and troops, we’re dealing with a sovereign government. Now, we entered into an agreement with the Karzai government. They weren’t called permanent bases, but they were called arrangements that will help this government understand that there will be a U.S. presence so long as they want them there.

As a euphemism for permanent bases, “arrangements that will help this government understand that there will be a U.S. presence so long as they want them there” needs a little work.

  1. 1  WIIIAI  October 26, 2006, 11:03 am 

    The choice of “tools” is not just technological but professional, that is something to be decided not by Congress or the general public, but by the “professionals,” in much the same way that Bush always claims the number of troops in Iraq is something he leaves up to the generals. Thus the term avoids both democracy and accountability.

    By the way, the motto of the professional torturers in applying their tools is “measure twice, cut once.”

  2. 2  Steven  October 26, 2006, 11:16 am 

    Good point. It follows naturally that if there is no ethical issue in the choice of a “tool”, there is no need for democratic accountability. The market for technological solutions is its own democracy. Early adopters like the “professionals” spur innovation for the good of all.

    Of course this kind of argument can be jettisoned when necessary to placate a zany demographic, viz. stem cells.

    Re: troops in Iraq – of course, Bush leaves it up to the generals, but what he often forgets to explain is that that means only the generals who tell him what he wants to hear. He didn’t leave it up to Shinseki.

  3. 3  Jon Elliott  October 27, 2006, 11:53 am 

    I thought the term “sovereign govenment / state” is defined as, “The concentration of all physical force in the hands of the central authority is the primary function of the state and its decisive character”?

    Perhaps George is ever hopefull and thinks Iraq may become “soverign government” if he “stays the course” and wins his and Blair’s war. Or is it the case that if they say it often enough then it must be true?

    PS. If Doors misbehave then the Supervisors either lock them up or give them a good kicking.


  4. 4  Sohail  October 27, 2006, 2:03 pm 

    I’m not at all convinced by the analysis on “tools”. Yes, it evokes the idea of technical considerations, but only as part of an everyday discourse that tries to sex up our language. It simply belongs to that group of words that Orwell called “pretentious diction”. See

    I mean, if Bush had instead said “And the Democrats voted against letting our professionals get on with business of protecting the American people”, would anything have been lost in the meaning here?

    “Tools” doesn’t necessarily suppress moral considerations. Prententiously, people talk about moral or ethical tools all the time. Frankly, this Unspeak analysis is a touch excessive.

  5. 5  Steven  October 28, 2006, 12:20 am 

    That part of Orwell’s essay, of course, is mostly balls.

  6. 6  Sohail  October 28, 2006, 8:53 am 

    Balls? Yes, that evokes all sorts of interesting ideas; its main function of course is to suppress discussion – technological, moral or otherwise.

    At any rate, note that Orwell was writing in the 1940s when language usage was not quite what it is in 2006.

  7. 7  Steven  October 28, 2006, 8:55 am 

    It was balls then, too.

  8. 8  Sohail  October 28, 2006, 9:06 am 


  9. 9  Sharon  October 28, 2006, 11:13 am 

    I’d say it’s balls because Orwell seems to deny a key aspect of the history of the English language, its process of continuous development: he complains about the ‘lazy’ adoption of new words, of ‘pretentious’ words, of ‘foreign’ words, but if it weren’t for several centuries of wanton borrowing of words from other languages and making up new ones from whatever disparate elements came to hand, what the hell does he imagine English would actually be left with? When you’re talking about English, with its vast thesauruses (thesauri?) of rich synonyms, complaining about new words on the grounds that they aren’t essential is risible.

    And the fact that so many of the words on his list now look so unexceptionable is precisely what underlines the bollocks-ness of his argument. There are many recent coinages in English I loathe (‘to trial a product’ – ugh ugh ugh) and occasionally whinge about, but I know very well that they’re part of exactly the same process that keeps giving me wondrous new toys to play with in my writing.

    Languages change, or they die. I always regard with suspicion those who (rhetorically) claim that a language is dying when what’s really going on is that it’s changing in ways they happen to dislike.

    Mind you, Orwell starts well there: ‘Words like … are used to dress up a simple statement… Adjectives like … are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics…’ It’s the ways in which words are used that really matters, not the words in themselves. Which is, unless I’ve completely misunderstood Steven all these months, precisely the point of Unspeak.

  10. 10  Sohail  October 28, 2006, 11:46 am 


    I fear you miss a very simple point. In plain words, do you accept that there is (at any given time) such a thing as “pretentious diction”?

  11. 11  Steven  October 28, 2006, 4:30 pm 

    Sharon has it exactly. What is more, Sohail, as a stick with which to beat my post, this passage from Orwell is rather a flaccid stick, or a crumbly stick, since “tool” is a good old Anglo-Saxon word and so quite the opposite of what Orwell is complaining about. This, I fear, is a “very simple point” that you appear to “miss” completely.

  12. 12  Sohail  October 28, 2006, 5:53 pm 

    Yawn…… Look, Steve, I’m not beating any post, and certainly not with a “flaccid stick” [a curious construction]. It seems to me that you’re reacting a little over-sensitively here. Furthermore, I’m not sure why you’re overly dwelling on Orwell. The main point was that “tools” here is simply pretentious usage. Omitting it – as I illustrated above – doesn’t alter the rhetorical effect in any meaningfully discernible way.

    Aside from this, I’m intrigued by the assumption that words of Anglo-Saxon origin cannot be classified as pretentious.

  13. 13  Steven  October 28, 2006, 6:37 pm 

    I’m not sure why you’re overly dwelling on Orwell.

    This has rapidly become tedious.

  14. 14  Sohail  October 28, 2006, 6:50 pm 

    Indeed, rapidly it has, though I thought Unspeak celebrated tediousness. Okay, message received. I’m outta’ here. But whatever you do, please don’t bring out your non-flaccid stick. ;)

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