I don’t think I will ever tire of the creative ways in which politicians exploit words and language. The war ("situation", "conflict", "military intervention", "freedom operation") in Iraq has provided many opportunities to witness them struggle with the simplest of words. Like torture.
Donald Rumsfeld: "I think that — I’m not a lawyer. My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture. I don’t know if it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there’s been a conviction for torture. And therefore I’m not going to address the torture word."
This article in the New York Times addresses the issue very well. Here is an extract of it:
"Words alter, words add, words subtract. It was the strenuous avoidance of the word ”genocide” while some 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda were being slaughtered, over a few weeks’ time, by their Hutu neighbors 10 years ago that indicated the American government had no intention of doing anything. To refuse to call what took place in Abu Ghraib — and what has taken place elsewhere in Iraq and in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay — by its true name, torture, is as outrageous as the refusal to call the Rwandan genocide a genocide.
Whatever actions this administration undertakes to limit the damage of the widening revelations of the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere (…), it is probable that the ”torture” word will continue to be banned. To acknowledge that Americans torture their prisoners would contradict everything this administration has invited the public to believe about the virtue of American intentions and America’s right, flowing from that virtue, to undertake unilateral action on the world stage."
I think various governments have strenuously avoided the word torture because it belongs to a similar category as evil (discussed earlier). Besides its legal definition, which is very clear, it is a very emotive word, which appeals to the imaginary and conjures a vision of (supposedly) darker times, when people were left to rot in gaols. So of course, nobody wants to be associated with this kind of word.
I find it fascinating that however powerful the images are, however obvious the evidence, as long as a certain word hasn’t been applied to a situation, that situation can be denied its reality. This shows how powerful words are, as George Orwell showed in 1984 when Newspeak (a dumbed-down version of language) was an integral part of the government’s strategy to control the population. If there isn’t a word to describe a situation, this situation doesn’t exist.
Please note that this post isn’t intended as anti-American. It just so happens that at the time that I’m writing this blog, the USA are involved in a war that has led to interesting developments from a language point of view. Replace "Americans" with "French" and "Iraqis" with "Algerians" and this could have been written in the 1950s. The manipulation of words in this way is nothing new and, I suspect, isn’t going to change any time soon.