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What to call legalized torture

Now that the Military Commissions Act – which authorizes the torture by US officials of prisoners so long as it does not result in serious “bodily injury” or non-transitory mental harm – has passed into law, there is a new standard euphemism for what it allows. It is tough. A BBC Radio news report yesterday referred fastidiously to “tough interrogation”. Newspapers are also referring to “tough interrogation” or “tough rules” or “tough methods” or “tough techniques”. As compared to previous talk of rough interrogation, this is a rhetorical refinement. It is particularly interesting for the possibility of a useful semantic leakage of the adjective. The usage “tough interrogation”, especially, may come to evoke an interrogation performed by tough men. And so the emphasis is handily switched from the suffering of those being tortured, about which it is uncomfortable to think too closely, to the moral and physical robustness of those doing the torturing. American torturers would thus be pictured as macho, square-jawed, taciturn heroes, fair-minded but dedicated to defending their country: tough. And in these times, who can doubt that toughness is a virtue? As Billy Ocean once sang, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Do you have some bleeding-heart, weaselly objections to such Wild West moral clarity? Tough.

  1. 1  WIIIAI  October 18, 2006, 12:00 pm 

    I’ve been wondering about this word myself. I think tough questioning is a term meant to appeal to people who would shy away from electrodes-to-the-genitals-type torture, but are happy to picture swarthy, sweaty guys being slapped around a bit, maybe hit a couple of times with a rubber hose while a bright light is shined in their eyes, as in a 1940s noir film. Tough but, you know, fair.

  2. 2  Mike  October 18, 2006, 1:05 pm 

    I, for one, welcome the takeover of the military and law-enforcement by the army of steely-eyed, infallable Jack Bauer clones.

  3. 3  WIIIAI  October 18, 2006, 1:12 pm 

    I’d welcome a takeover by an army of Chloe O’Brian clones, if it comes to that.

    Our luck, we’ll get an army of Kim Bauer clones.

  4. 4  Steven  October 18, 2006, 1:38 pm 

    And then the terrorists will defeat us by releasing a carefully trained squad of mountain lions.

  5. 5  Andrew Bartlett  October 19, 2006, 10:34 am 

    Chloe O’Brian?

    All we need is China O’Brien. As you can see, she would be both tough and defend our democracy.

  6. 6  Steven  October 19, 2006, 12:01 pm 

    Richard O’Brian would make a perfect MC for the coming Armageddon.

  7. 7  Ratzinger  October 19, 2006, 12:23 pm 

    This got me thinking.

    “Tough” is used in the context of things that are difficult initially but in the end good for you. Exams are “tough”, business conditions are “tough”, and of course choices are “tough”. It is assumed we benefit from facing down such circumstances. If I was a semioticist, which thankfully I am not (as that would put me on a par with that disgraceful anticlerical, Umberto Ecco) I would say that the word is embodied in a web of positive associations. We say “tough” exams, not “sadistic” exams. Try replacing “tough” with alternatives in other adjective-noun pairings.

    The big, soft but firm, matriarch of all such usages would be “tough love”. Clearly that is not what Bush and his friends are quite expressing- there an appeal there to the punitive instincts of the red states – but they are happy for the word to elevate their purpose a little by floating it on the warm updraft it can connote.

    My love, of course, is famously tough.

  8. 8  Steven  October 19, 2006, 12:34 pm 

    My love’s like a slow train coming, but be that as it may, you have a very good point. What is “tough” is morally improving for the person who tackles it. This may be related to the fact that historically the first sense of “tough” recorded in OED is the still-current one of “difficult to masticate”. Tough meat may challenge your molars, but in the end it is nutritious.

    Also: it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.

  9. 9  Graham Giblin  October 20, 2006, 4:04 am 

    And hey – a bit of tough questioning would be appropriate in Iraq, because apparently they did arrange the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 after all. Bush, 14 October at US Air Force Memorial Dedication at Darlington, Va:

    “…the United States Air Force helped deliver justice to a regime nearly 7,000 miles away from the World Trade Center, and helped put the terrorists on the run.”

  10. 10  Graham Giblin  October 20, 2006, 5:59 am 

    “…the United States Air Force helped deliver justice..”

    I just noticed this excellent euphemism. “We didn’t bomb the bejesus out of Baghdad. We were just the delivery man for Justice.”

    Imagine all the grateful Iraqis watching the “justice” pouring out of the sky. But surely he should have said, “tough” justice.

    But did you miss this, buried in the middle of the WH 11 Oct press conference*.

    Bush on Abu Ghraib:
    “I believe that really hurt us. It hurt us internationally. It kind of eased us off the moral high ground; we weren’t a country that was capable of, one the one hand, promoting democracy and then treating people decently.”

    But of course the embarrassment was that it was “torture” that got us the bad press. So the solution is?….Don’t stop doing it, just stop calling it “torture”. Ta Da!!
    And anyway, we weren’t shamed, shocked, pilloried, appalled, appalling and equated with Saddam’s excesses. We were merely “kind of eased off the moral high ground.”


  11. 11  Steven  October 20, 2006, 10:56 am 

    Other euphemisms for bombing include “servicing the target”, delivering “force packages”, etc. “Delivering justice” is a good one, as though Antonin Scalia strapped to a jetpack had roared down into the streets of Baghdad.

  12. 12  Graham Giblin  October 29, 2006, 11:59 pm 

    On an Australian TV show (a bit like Meet the Press) US Assistant Secretary of State, Chistopher Hill, asked whether Australia should be showing “a bit of tough love” in the Pacific region, said:

    “I think tough love is a good thing, and I think – I won’t speak for Australian taxpayers, I will speak for American taxpayers, being one of them, and, when I hear my colleagues in the government showing tough love with a country and showing that we’re taking good care that the money that our taxpayers are giving us to help a country – that that money is really going to good use.”

    I can’t think of anything to say.

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