This weekend, former Vice President and possible war criminal Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press to discuss his reaction to the CIA torture report. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t like it. Cheney insisted that waterboarding and other practices were not torture, and said of the events described in the report that he’d “do it again in a minute.” He meant he’d order someone he’d never met to do it again in a minute, but whatever. The important thing is that what Bush and Cheney told the CIA to do, which we’re just finding out about now in an alarming declassified report, was great for America and definitely not torture. I quote:
Torture is what the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation.
And that, dear friends, is the subject of today’s Close Reading.
It seems like there’s been a lot of disagreement lately about what torture is, and I think we should settle on a meaning of the word right now. Webster’s dictionary defines torture as “a medicine made by dissolving drugs in alcohol,” so that’s no help. Since the methods keep changing with modern technology, maybe we’re betting off defining torture teleologically.
Torture is whatever you do to someone with the promise that you will stop when they give you want you want. That covers pulling people’s fingernails out with hot pliers, as well as pouring water over a rag in their mouths to make them feel like they’re drowning or providing them with rectal feeding tubes they don’t need. It may also cover what Cheney is doing to the English language.
Torture is not “what the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11.” The clue is that we don’t refer to them as the Al Qaeda torturers. Although we agree that what they did on September 11 was very bad, it did not include an element of durance wherein they promised to stop destroying the World Trade Center as soon as we told them who planned Israel. If simply killing people in the name of Middle East geopolitics is torture, then Cheney should only agree to appear on Meet the Press via satellite from international waters.
But 9/11 was obviously not an act of torture—as Cheney said, there is no comparison between that and “what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation.” You will notice that he is the only person still using that phrase. You will also notice his sudden shift from plain syntax when he starts talking about what “we” did.1
“What we did with respect to [gerund]” is a funny way of saying “what we [verbed].” If you ask me what happened to your sandwich, and I say “don’t worry about what I did with respect to the eating of sandwiches,” you might suspect me of a dodge. What we did with respect to doing is, in this case, doing it. But maybe one reason Cheney took recourse to nominalization here is that there is no verb form of “enhanced interrogation.”
He couldn’t say that we caught some suspected terrorists and interrogated them enhancedly. “Bring me my jug and old rag,” the farmer says when he finds some drummer canoodling with his daughter. “I’m going to enhanced interrogate this son of a bitch.” It doesn’t work. “Enhanced interrogation” is a euphemism that exists only as a noun, because no one ever talked about it as something he did. It was always just a policy, a thing done by others that the speaker could be for or against.
That’s a sure sign it’s wrong. To a man who decided that he had no problem with whatever he told other people to do “as long as we achieve our objective,” waterboarding and putting living people in coffins for 12 hours a day can be enhanced interrogation. But for the man whose job is to hold down another man and force a tube into his rectum, or listen to him beg for a few seconds to breathe while he refills the water jug and then say “not until you tell us who your friends are,” it’s something else.
You need a verb for that when you’re the one doing it. When you are one of the people it happened to mistakenly, and you get turned loose with a few thousand dollars and maybe an apology, you probably need a verb for what they did to you. When you are the one who merely orders it to happen—when you can go on TV a decade later and simultaneously deny you did anything wrong and insist that the ends justified the means—then you can hide it in a noun. For you, it’s just an idea.