Torture and the Meaning of Words

When should news stories label interrogation practices torture?

That question arises from the Obama administration’s release of Bush administration legal memos endorsing — and precisely describing — the brutal abuse of "high-value" detainees. Never before has a president taken such an initiative in releasing basic documents about human rights abuses by the executive branch.

These memos are being released only because of tireless spadework since 2002 by investigative reporters like Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker, Dana Priest of the Washington Post and Mark Danner of the New York Review of Books. President Obama hinted as much in his statement, noting that he could declassify these memos because "the interrogation techniques described in these memos have already been widely reported." When all other checks and balances — federal law, international treaties, Congressional inquiry - failed, journalism stepped in.

And yet, it is striking how many major first-day news accounts of these memos reflect continuing ambivalence about whether reporters should call "brutal interrogation techniques" torture.  The memos — essential reading in every sickening word - describe not only waterboarding but stress positions, “walling” (slamming prisoners repeatedly against specially-constructed walls) and more.  But in nearly all of the stories I read this morning, the word "torture" appears only when quoted or attributed to a critic of the Bush administration, or in the language of the memos themselves.  (President Obama himself nowhere uses the word torture in his own statement.)

So should news accounts call these interrogation practices torture? Two decades of research into traumatic stress may help reporters and editors choose the appropriate language as debate over these memos goes forward.

The Bush administration memos specifically articulate a widely-held view: that the terror inflicted by simulated drowning and those other “enhanced interrogation techniques” is, no matter how extreme,  a transitory and entirely “emotional” issue. Today’s memos repeated describe how the techniques allegedly cause no lasting physical harm — an important point, since the Bush administration lawyers admitted that permanent injury or “organ damage” meets the U.S. and international standards for torture. 

Yet over the past 40 years numerous scientific studies examining the impact of uncontrollable stress — a situation in which an animal is exposed to stress from which it cannot escape — have provided clear, unmistakable evidence of harmful physical changes in the brain.  These stress-induced changes are non-trivial: meaningful alterations in the way brain cells grow, communicate with and modulate one another.  And in humans, scientific studies show that similar extreme stress is also associated with alterations in neurobiology, brain functioning and architecture.  You can see those changes — which sometimes become post-traumatic stress disorder - in brain scans and blood work.

What does this mean about “enhanced interrogation?” That the brain — an organ of the body — can be permanently damaged or “scarred” from exposure to highly stressful, traumatic events. And that meets even Deputy Legal Counsel Jay Bybee’s notoriously constricted definition of torture.

All of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” in today’s document dump were deliberately designed to inflict terror for the subjects’ lives. Whether waterboarding, walling, locking a subject in a box with an allegedly poisonous insect, all were designed to induce feelings of helplessness and intense fear. That is precisely the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.

When it comes to trauma, there is no division between mind and body. As the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis and numerous other clinics and researchers have found, the rates of long-lasting and profound PTSD and depression in torture survivors are staggering – two-thirds of the new patients at the CVT show up with crippling PTSD.

Which brings us back to reporting on the Bush memos. There are of course many reasons why political leaders might use euphemisms. President Bush’s Justice Department and  Office of Legal Counsel were trying to redefine torture as not-torture. President Obama, who has banned these techniques, sees criminal prosecution of CIA interrogators as a political thicket.

But reporters and editors have different responsibilities. If news accounts and headlines call torture torture, science will back them up.