Many people unintentionally allow themselves to be fooled. Perhaps the most common and traditional way is simply by holding the pervasive belief that words stand for precise things out there, and that the relationship between word and thing is eternally unambiguously clear if we use language ‘correctly’. —— -If it only were!
The Age newspaper (May 5) provides a sample problem when it announces the new trial in America of five terrorists who have been in custody for some time. Billed as the “trial of the century”.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the deemed master-mind behind 9/11, is the most notorious of the five – but for more than one reason. It has been officially confirmed that he was ‘water-boarded’ 183 times in the first four weeks of his capture.
No information has been made available on his carceration during the following several months.
This intensive treatment is but a tip of the iceberg. The article fails to remind readers that American authorities officially deny that ‘water-boarding’ is ‘torture’. So, to them, Khalid has never been tortured. He never will be – we will be officially reminded of this from time to time. He has experienced only “enhanced interrogation technique”.
The article also fails to tell its readers that American authorities remain unwilling, unlike most other countries, to officially define ‘torture’. This refusal extends as far as the special international committee commissioned to reach some universal consensus on the term. TheAmerican position is firm: ‘we would all recognise it if ‘torture’ was ever used anywhere; and we would all agree then to condemn it’.
[ This stand allows America the freedom to use any technique any time it wishes, and whatever that is, it can never be shown by others to be ‘torture’. By definition – permanently undefined.]
So a “reformed war crimes tribunal” is due to begin, after an earlier version had been found ‘unconstitutional’ by the US Supreme Court.
The new prosecutor, General Martin, is confident about the unblemished status of the upcoming trial. He insists that any army officer selected to serve on the jury from a pre-determined selection of 230,000 serving officers, will be ‘impartial’ even if that soldier had been fighting in Afghanistan for the last ten years. As he says, the military can be trusted to be “just”; it has “proven so in the past”.
So there we are. Officially, the five terrorists have never been tortured and, whatever the outcome, we are reassured the trail will be a just one. There is nothing to be concerned about; the entire process is one of trust. Everyone, even terrorists, will get a “fair-trial”. Someone like Khalid, however, will not be allowed to use the occasion “as an opportunity to grandstand; that would be too dangerous” it is said. [That is why the US Congress stopped the earlier New York Federal Court trial].
To many observers the process has been dismissed as a legal sham; any confession by Klalid, they argue, cannot be accepted as valid after the treatment he has received. A ‘second-tier justice’ normally associated with the ‘show-trials’ of China and North Korea is the harsh judgment of many legal observers.
Indeed this trial has been characterised by the previous chief prosecutor, Colonel Morris Davis, who resigned from the position in 2008, as the equivalent to “putting lipstick on a pig”.
But the public, anywhere, can be understandably confused about what to believe. Is ‘water-boarding’ torture of not? Would senior American officials lie about such a thing? What proof do critics have to support their accusations of torture?
Can we, late in the day, learn to realise that words are words are words – and can never become ‘facts’ even if they look as if they are? We know that in certain cases; just because someone says “I love you” it does not necessarily mean (s)he does, or if (s)he does mean it, what does ‘mean’ mean; and when (s)he acts in some way or other is it an act of love or not? These questions are unanswerable – because words can never be pinned down like that. There is no one meaning of ‘love’; there never can be and nothing can ever be proven one way or the other.
Most people probably realise that in some way, but they tend to forget that the same rule applies to any word we can utter – it cannot be otherwise. ‘Smart’ people knowingly exploit that reality; and innocent even reasonable people get fooled.
‘Terrorist’, ‘just’, ‘fair’, ‘impartial’, ‘torture’ are words. Language can only be language. We can say anything with words but as one leading philosopher of the twentieth century said: “A use of language is also an abuse of language”. We can’t do much without language, but it can never settle anything scientifically, rationality. It is always ambiguous – and that can’t be reformed.
Intellectual argument is of little value. We cannot prove the current American position on torture, terrorists, justice and fairness to be wrong and, likewise we cannot prove that we are right. It is in every case a matter of belief and moral intuition.
Which in every way, however, is both more important and more profound.
I believe water-boarding to be torture. I believe that the American government has with full awareness behaved reprehensively ever since 9/11 in the broad arena of terrorism, torture, justice, honesty, decency. What they do, and don’t do (cf refusal to concede any benchmark on ‘torture’) is utterly immoral and done in a conscious political process of immediate vindictive punishment of anything or anyone deemed an enemy – even though what they do clearly aggravates not ameliorates the international situation. And this is why they feel they have to deceive the world (as best they can) by linguistic chicanery.
Because a judgment like this, or any other, can never be proven right, it must not deter anyone from making a judgment. We should never let words, words deliberately chosen to politically deceive people, trick us into silence and confusion. That applies all the time – and everywhere.
Postscript: the trial has begun. But after one day of ‘mayhem’ it has been postponed. Justice, in this case injustice, may eventually be served by other means of current American-style
‘law and order’ – it seems pre-determined.
May 17, 2012