Friday, July 10, 2009

Torturing for all the Right Reasons

Alicia Shepard, Ombudsman for National Public Radio, has continually been appearing on NPR programming to defend NPR's policy of not referring to so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" as torture. There has been an interesting development since I wrote about this issue last week that takes Shepard's defense from sad, to ridiculous.

From Glenn Greenwald:

Finally, I was on an NPR station yesterday in Seattle to discuss NPR's ban on the use of the word "torture" to describe Bush administration interrogation tactics. I originally understood that I would be on with NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard, but alas, it turns out that she agreed only to be on the show before me, so as not to engage or otherwise interact with me, so I was forced to listen to her for 15 minutes and wait until she hung up before being able to speak. The segment can be heard here, beginning at the 14:00 mark (though the quality of the recording is poor in places).

The most noteworthy point was her explicit statement (at 17:50) that "the role of a news organization is to lay out the debate"; rarely is the stenographic model of "journalism" -- "we just repeat what each side says and leave it at that" -- so expressly advocated (and see Jon Stewart's perfect mockery of that view). She also said -- when the host asked about the recent example I cited of NPR's calling what was done to a reporter in Gambia "torture" (at the 20:20 mark) -- that NPR will use the word "torture" to describe what other governments do because they do it merely to sadistically inflict pain on people while the U.S. did it for a noble reason: to obtain information about Terrorist attacks. That's really what she said: that when the U.S. did it (as opposed to Evil countries), it was for a good reason. Leaving aside the factual falsity of her claim about American motives, Shepard actually thinks that "torture" is determined by the motive with which the suffering is inflicted. The connection between the Government's ability to get away with these things and the media's warped view of its role really cannot be overstated.


I've been going back and forth on whether Shepard's deficiency is primarily one of intellect or whether she's just a hard-core Cheneyite. I'm now convinced -- after her statements yesterday on that show I did with after her -- that it's both.

Anyone who can say that what we do is not "torture" because we do it for the right reasons -- whereas it's "torture" when those other countries do it because they're sadistic and bad -- is someone who is devoid of both basic reasoning skills and good motives.

and as Kevin Drum points out, this is indeed what Shepard said!

For the record, here's what she actually said about NPR's piece on Gambia:

In that case, these were strictly tactics to torture him, to punish him, versus in the United States, and the way that it's used, these are tactics used to get information. The Gambian journalist was in jail for his beliefs.

Wow. She really did say that, didn't she? When other people do it for other reasons, it's torture. When we do it for our reasons, it's not.

You don't usually find people willing to say this quite so baldly. Congratulations, Alicia Shepard.

Astounding isn't it? Shepard's defense of NPR's decision to not use the word "torture" (in describing the tactics approved by the Bush Administration) has descended into the realm of pathetic. To (wrongly) advance the argument or moral superiority when discussing the reasoning behind torture and then using that as justification for why NPR shouldn't call it torture, is absurd on every possible level. Shepard's defense boils down to "we torture for good reasons" and "others torture for bad reasons", therefore, we shouldn't describe our techniques as "torture" when reporting on them. Can it be any clearer why critical journalism is suffering? And this is from National Public Radio.

No comments: