"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."

On War and the Corruption of Language

July 8, 2004

At Abu Ghraib, people were tortured. Dictionaries define torture as "the inflicting of severe pain to force information or confession, get revenge, etc." This is what happened at Abu Ghraib. Yet Abu Ghraib is coming to be known more as an "abuse scandal" than a "torture scandal."

Since Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said several weeks ago that those who insist on using the word "torture" are endangering American troops, the term "torture" is not being used as a descriptive term in the mainstream press.

In fact, the word "torture" seems to have been banished altogether from government web sites in this context. On a Google search of the Internet's U.S. government domain (.gov), "Abu Ghraib abuse scandal" yields 4 responses; "Abu Ghraib torture scandal" yields none. On the Internet's U.S. military domain (.mil), "Abu Ghraib abuse scandal" yields 4 responses, "Abu Ghraib torture scandal" yields none. In general usage, too, "abuse" is prevailing over "torture." A Google search for Abu+Ghraib+abuse yields 206,000 responses; Abu+Ghraib+torture yields 184,000.

In a word, the language is being corrupted.

This is nothing new. The corruption of language is one of the results of the pursuit of unjust national aims through war.

Historians have demonstrated many times that when a nation does what is wrong, it corrupts its own language. It's part of the pathology of war, first described by the Greek historian Thucydides more than 2,400 years ago in his History of the Peloponnesian War, when telling the story of the Corcyraean Revolution, which, like the Iraq war, had to do with a great power (Athens) meddling in the politics of another country. "Good deeds can be shortly stated, but where wrong is done a wealth of language is needed to veil its deformity," Thucydides wrote. The way we describe what happens can be corrupted by the happening itself -- a process that has intensified with the development of technologies of mass communication, and a class of professionals to manipulate them.

When governments embark on policies that violate elementary moral principles -- when they engage in aggression, for example, or when they set out to steal what rightfully belongs to others, or when they systematically abuse a class of persons -- they are led to corrupt language itself.

Those in power are unable to accept that their deeds be described accurately. Instead, they insist on descriptive terms that justify their actions, while finding the means to suppress, censure, or marginalize true descriptions. Some of the people who do this are self-deceived. Some of them are scoundrels. The self-deceivers and scoundrels have different motives, but they have a common interest in finding ways to deal with those who use language accurately.

Two examples: On July 6, the Daily Mirror (London) reported that the British Foreign Office is trying to prevent a court from allowing antiwar protesters in the United Kingdom from presenting in their defense an argument that the Iraq war was illegal, on the grounds that allowing such a claim would place British troops in Iraq at greater risk, jeopardize the U.K.'s standing among Arab countries, and increase vulnerability to terrorism. And in the United States, the preliminary memos that government lawyers wrote in 2002 and 2003, attempting to redefine "torture" in anticipation of being charged with it, have become a notorious part of the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Citizens of a democratic nation should resist the efforts of those who want to change the meaning of words to comfort those who have committed illegitimate acts. The leaders who send troops to fight an unjust war, or who dictate the policy of violating the Geneva Conventions, are responsible for putting soldiers' lives at risk, jeopardizing the standing of the nation, and increasing the risks of terrorism -- not the journalists and observers who describe what they do.

On CNN on May 16, Len Downie of the Washington Post rebutted the idea that the press should muzzle itself as part of the war effort: "What makes this country different and what we're supposed to be fighting for in Iraq, is a system in which there's accountability of our elected representatives and the people who work for them to everybody else. And the most important part of that accountability is for the media to inform citizens about what their troops are doing and what their leaders are doing, and then have the citizens judge whether or not that's the right course to take."

Accurate information, accountability, and the ideal of democracy require that we resist the inevitable pressures to alter the meaning of words. A war prosecuted on account of false suppositions is an unjust war. Asserting what one knows to be false is lying. And intentionally causing severe pain to prisoners is torture.

We can resist the distortion of language. It's a hopeful sign that on the Internet's educational domain (.edu) -- devoted to those who are professionally committed to accuracy in language -- a Google search for the phrase "Abu Ghraib abuse scandal" yields only 2 responses, while "Abu Ghraib torture scandal" yields 14 responses.


"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."