You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

OpEdge: Torturing Language to Sanitize Torture

Marc Jampole
December 14, 2014
by Marc Jampole cia-janitorHOW DO WE KNOW that those who are defending the American torture program under the presidency of George W. Bush recognize that they are wrong and that torture is both illegal and immoral — in other words, evil? We can tell in the language they use. As soon as the Central Intelligence Agency, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush decided to call it “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” they as much as admitted they knew it was wrong and illegal. They understood full well that knowledge of the program would revolt a large part of the population, and that even most of those who approved it would do so reluctantly and base their approval on a lie — that torture works to get bad people to tell us where their fellow baddies are hiding. So they decide to call it something else. Calling torture “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” surely raises a lot fewer eyebrows than calling it torture. Except for one thing: lots of Americans have become cynical of such euphemisms. From “pacification” of villages in Vietnam to “Clear Skies” to describe a program to gut the Clean Air Act, for decades the federal government has been trying to soften the impact of bad stuff they want to do by giving it a pretty name. ENTER ONE OF THE FAVORITE FRIENDS of corporate communicators throughout the world: the abbreviation or acronym (which technically is a word formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term). In testimonies and interviews, virtually all defenders of U.S. torture have depended heavily on the abbreviation EIT. I’ve worked and consulted for many large organizations, so I can tell you that they deal in abbreviations and acronyms. They breed them and use them. There can be no doubt that the torture program was primarily referred to as EIT, especially among the cognoscenti. Even secret programs must make their way through bureaucratic channels: budgets, human resources, purchase order numbers, all must be tied to specific activity for all bureaucracies, government and private enterprise. Requisitions for the EIT program. Reports from the EIT program. All of this use of an abbreviation of a smelly euphemism among the coteries of people who knew exactly what EIT meant. At one point, I can imagine Rumsfeld exploding to Tenet, “This EIT program uses a shitload of electricity! Dick is going to have a heart attack when he sees these numbers.” THE NAZIS USED EUPHEMISMS TO CONCEAL their destruction of the Jews. Stalin and Mao Zedong used euphemisms for programs they knew were evil or would hurt or kill many innocent people. Compare the lengths to which the United States, Germany, the Soviet Union, and China have gone to hide the evil they perpetrated on people to the Spanish Inquisition, which burned people at the stake in public. The implementers of the Spanish Inquisition believed that what they did was just, moral, and sanctioned by their god, so they did it in public. The only conclusion we can come to is that our torture gang knew it was illegal and immoral, a.k.a. evil. All large bureaucracies tend to sanitized their decisions — good and bad — through language and language shortening that turns great masses of activity with enormous impact on individuals into bite-sized phrases that the bureaucracy further sanitizes by putting them through the jargon-laden special language it has evolved for internal communications. People are too busy developing and monitoring budgets, evaluating metrics, requisitioning and processing invoices for the ABC, ABACUS, or EIT program to remember what each program does, whether it helps poor women with children or tortures other human beings. We can certainly improve the bureaucracy by making it more open, changing the way it approaches communications at all levels and making it easier for oversight. But let’s be clear: Bureaucracies don’t create evil, they just process it in their emotionlessly banal way. Men and women as individuals and in small groups create the evil. If we want to make sure that no future American government engages in torture, we have to prosecute those involved in creating the Bush II gulag, including our former president and vice president. Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer who runs Jampole Communications, a public relations and communications firm in Pittsburgh. He blogs several times a week at OpEdge.