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|Posted March 9, 2008|
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
Some locutions begin as bland bureaucratic euphemisms to conceal great crimes. As their meanings become clear, these collocations gain an aura of horror. In the past century, final solution and ethnic cleansing were phrases that sent a chill through our lexicon. In this young century, the word in the news though not yet in most dictionaries that causes much wincing during debate is the verbal noun waterboarding.
If the word torture, rooted in the Latin for twist, means anything (and it means the deliberate infliction of excruciating physical or mental pain to punish or coerce), then waterboarding is a means of torture. The predecessor terms for its various forms are water torture, water cure and water treatment.
The early phrase Chinese water torture described a cruel ordeal invented by Asian ancients. The purpose of slowly dripping water on the forehead until each little splash became unbearable was not to elicit information through harsh interrogation but to drive the victim mad. That phrase outlived its sadistic practice and is in use today, adopted as a metaphor for repeated annoyance intended to infuriate. In a 1991 hostage standoff, President George H. W. Bush decried the cruel water torture of occasional vague promises.
The water cure was described as the response by some American soldiers to atrocities by Filipino insurgents after our liberation of the Philippine Islands in the Spanish-American war of 1898. At a Congressional hearing in the spring of 1902, the cure was described as water poured onto his face, down his throat and nose. . . . His suffering must be that of a man who is drowning but who cannot drown. Mark Twain, writing in the May 1902 issue of the North American Review, deplored the torturing of Filipinos by the awful water cure . . . to make them confess.
President Theodore Roosevelt disapproved, and in 1902 ordered the dismissal of the United States general in charge; in a letter to a German friend dated July 19, 1902, however, Roosevelt was slightly more understanding: to find out which Filipinos committed outrages, he wrote that not a few of our officers and enlisted men began to use the old Filipino method of mild torture, the water cure. Nobody was seriously damaged, whereas the Filipinos had inflicted incredible tortures upon our own people. T.R. was careful to add, Nevertheless, torture is not a thing that we can tolerate.
To more recent times: in 1953, a U.S. fighter pilot told United Press that North Korean captors gave him the water treatment in which they would bend my head back, put a towel over my face and pour water over the towel. I could not breathe. . . . When I would pass out, they would shake me and begin again. In 1976, a United Press International reporter wrote that U.S. Navy trainees were strapped down and water poured into their mouths and noses until they lost consciousness. . . . A Navy spokesman admitted use of the water board torture . . . to convince each trainee that he wont be able to physically resist what an enemy would do to him. In 1991, the columnist Jack Anderson confusing the phrase about ancient practice with the modern development wrote of the Chinese water board demonstration, one of the most dangerous in the Navy arsenal. Water is then poured over their faces by an instructor to simulate prisoner-of-war treatment. Without the Chinese reference, such simulated drowning is the method most often used today to describe the interrogation of three suspected terrorists, about which the C.I.A. director recently testified.
The earliest use of the phrase water boarding I can find is in an article about the interrogation of the suspected terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (often awarded the bogus title 9/11 mastermind). It was posted on the Web site of The New York Times on May 12, 2004, by James Risen, David Johnston and Neil Lewis, published in The Times and carried worldwide on the A.P. wire the next day: C.I.A. interrogators used graduated levels of force, including a technique known as water boarding, in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown.
That month, the law professor Alan Dershowitz, in a Boston Globe op-ed column critical of the rough interrogation method, put the two words together as a verbal noun or gerund. Soon after, Senator John McCain no stranger to both the wrong of painful coercion and the need for antiterror intelligence strongly denounced the procedure as exquisite torture. Professor Dershowitz informs my researcher, Juliet Mohnkern, that he considers todays brief definition to be a misapplication of the complicated procedure that was the origin of the word: strapping a person to a board that rested on a fulcrum, like a seesaw, with the torturer on the other end able to plunge the prisoners head into a pool of water. When I first used the word nobody knew what it meant, Dershowitz said. Waterboarding has in the last few years taken on the generic meaning simulated drowning.
Why did boarding take over from cure, treatment and torture? Darius Rejali, the author of the recent book Torture and Democracy and a professor at Reed College, has an answer: There is a special vocabulary for torture. When people use tortures that are old, they rename them and alter them a wee bit. They invent slightly new words to mask the similarities. This creates an inside club, especially important in work where secrecy matters. Waterboarding is clearly a jailhouse joke. It refers to surfboarding a word found as early as 1929 they are attaching somebody to a board and helping them surf. Torturers create names that are funny to them.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times Magazine of Sunday, March 9, 2008.
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