All Hail Alberto the Slithy, Torturer of the Meaning of "Torture"

Thursday, March 09, 2006 at 08:56 AM

Well, "SLITHY" means "lithe and slimy." "Lithe" is the same as "active." You see it's like a portmanteau -- there are two meanings packed up into one word. Humpty Dumpty, in Alice in Wonderland.

And Alberto Gonzales is all that and more, if you've followed his public appearances and his unreassuring assurances on several subjects over the last several days.  The definition of "torture" once again tortured.  The ambiguity of prior statements to the Senate clarified so as to increase the ambiguity.  Announcement by the Attorney General for what appears to be one of the most corrupt administrations in history that "One of my priorities for the Justice Department in the coming year is to better safeguard public integrity -- not solely in the area of Hurricane related fraud, but also procurement fraud and other instances of public corruption."

Let's start with a small example, focusing on the difference that emphasis can make, both in public statements and in the media coverage of those statements.  At his London speech on torture Tuesday at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think-tank, Gonzales played his usual semantic game, unequivocally telling his audience, according to the Newsday styling of the AP report, that:

The U.S. abhors torture and categorically rejects its use....The United States has always been and remains a great defender of human rights and the rule of law.  I regret that there has been concern or confusion about our commitment to the rule of law.

You could stop there and assume that we've recovered our lost values, found our missing conscience, and  returned to the correct side of the human debate over the behavior of the state toward individual human beings.

But only if you are determined to remain ignorant so that you can continue to support the administration with a clear conscience, because you know that this is not how we have acted under the stewardship of George W. Bush, as aided and abetted by Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and, increasingly, Alberto Gonzales.  So Mr. Gonzales continued on:

The U.S. abides by its own definition, which he said was the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering.

....He declined to comment on alleged interrogation techniques at Guantanamo, such as water boarding, during which the victim believes he is about to drown, or the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners.

"If we went around this room, people would have different definitions of what constitutes torture, depending on the circumstances," he said.

Now the Newsday story left it out, but Bloomberg's styling of the same speech included this little gem:

Gonzales said that the definition of torture under which U.S. forces operate referred to the "the intentional infliction of severe, and I emphasize severe, pain or suffering.

So how severe is severe?  Who knows.  It's a pretty safe bet that the interrogator has a somewhat different take on severity than the person being interrogated.  A very large branch of a very large tree fell on my shoulder during a  recent wind storm.  Hurt like hell.  Was the pain "severe?"  Would it be okay for U.S. interrogators to drop tree limbs on my shoulder every 15 minutes?  If you are brought to the edge of drowning repeatedly, are you in "severe pain?"  Are we talking only about physical pain?  I assume so, because (a) there's no way in hell you can quantify psychological pain; (b) psychological "distress" may or may not be the same thing as "pain"; and  (c) it's probably a given that prisoners being subjected to "not quite severe pain" by hostile interrogators are experiencing severe psychological "distress."

And the slithy one was not yet finished defining himself back into a good guy.  Try this one from Newsday on for semantic size:

...where appropriate the U.S. sought assurances from foreign governments before transporting detainees there, and did not transport anyone "to a country if we believe it more likely than not that the individual would be tortured.

Slithy, indeed.  What makes some cases "appropriate" and others not?  How do you decide if it is "more likely than not?"  What definition of "torture" is used here, ours or the receiving country's?

And this elaboration from Bloomberg:

We do not use airports or air space of any country in Europe or anywhere in the world for the purposes of transporting a detainee to a country where he will be tortured.

Slithy personified.  Maybe the trick here is that we use the airports and air space to accommodate airplanes, and it is the airplanes which are used to transport the prisoners to torture?   Maybe the trick is that we transport them to country A, knowing that country A will further transport them to country B for torture?  Maybe the trick is that "purposes" of transportation aren't torture, but that torture is a pleasant little side benefit?

Then there's Mr. Slithy's "clarifying" letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he pointed out that his prior comment before them that the NSA spying program "is all that he [Bush] has authorized,"  should be viewed in light of the fact that he "was confining my remarks to the Terrorist Surveillance Program as described by the President" and that he "did not and could not address . . . any other classified intelligence activities."  So when he said the NSA program was all Bush had authorized, he was confining his remarks to the NSA program.  Got it.  Must be read through the Slithy code book.

And finally there's the transcript of remarks by Alberto the Slithy to The National Association of Attorneys General on March 8:

One of my priorities for the Justice Department in the coming year is to better safeguard public integrity -- not solely in the area of Hurricane related fraud, but also procurement fraud and other instances of public corruption.
Our government and economy are the envy of the world because we have systems that are open, honest, fair, and dependable. Integrity in government is essential for a strong America...taxpayers deserve nothing less. That's why I've made it a priority to enforce our laws that preserve the integrity of our public institutions.

As you are aware, the American dream is in many ways an economic dream. People hope to start a business, buy a home, improve their community, or invest for a better future down the road. In some areas of the world, such dreams can only be pursued with bribes, kickbacks, and coercion. But here, our unique commitment to the rule of law allows ordinary citizens to rely on -- and expect -- the honesty and integrity of government officials, corporate executives, and other holders of the public's trust.

I know you are familiar with the list of recent corruption cases. Unfortunately, it only takes one or two corrupt officials to damage the public's trust in hundreds of thousands of honest and hard-working public servants.

In Slithyland, this makes sense, because he's just saying that public corruption is "one of [his] priorities," he didn't say how big a priority, and, on top of that, he just wants to "better safeguard" the public."  That's not the same as making the public safe, it's enough to make us safer.  Catch one crook at his crookedness and you have, by definition, made the public safer than it was before the crook was caught.  So as soon as they plunk Abramoff in jail, or send Bob Ney or Tom Noe for a well deserved incarcervacation, or get around to prosecuting and convicting David Safavian, presto, another success for the slithy.  Never mind (don't look over there) that the crooks run in the same pack as the slithy, that many of them are related by money to the head of the slithies, or that the head slithy himself appointed Safavian to the position where he could gorge on public corruption.

This endless resort to word games and disingenuous explanations is itself a sign of how low we've sunk.  You don't need these games unless there's a need to deceive.  And the need to deceive usually comes from the fact that, if you told the truth, you'd be in hot water up to the tip of your slithy.

Until this White House crowd, these semantic tools were the stock in trade of countries that we railed about, that we held up to public ridicule.  Until Alberto the Slithy, most folks of common sense and good will could identify "torture" without resort to several hundred words on linguistics and relativism, and 9/11,9/11,9/11,9/11,9/11.....

If the face of Alberto Gonzales is now the face of America to the rest of the world, we are in deep doo-doo, no matter how you define "deep" and "doo-doo."

Words mean what I want them to mean. The caterpillar, in Alice in Wonderland.

Words mean whaever it's convenient for them to mean. Alberto the Slithy, in America in Blunderland.