Thursday, July 9, 2009

"The Consequences Might Have Been Worse"

NPR banned the word "torture" to describe things, like waterboarding, that were done to detainees by government employees or contractors. Instead, they're described, in language that mirrors governmental euphemisms, "harsh interrogation techiques." Here's how NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard described NPR's reasoning:

I recognize that it's frustrating for some listeners to have NPR not use the word torture to describe certain practices that seem barbaric. But the role of a news organization is not to choose sides in this or any debate. People have different definitions of torture and different feelings about what constitutes torture. NPR's job is to give listeners all perspectives, and present the news as detailed as possible and put it in context...To me, it makes more sense to describe the techniques and skip the characterization. For example, reporters could say that the U.S. military poured water down a detainee's mouth and nostrils for 40 seconds.

When Glenn Greenwald called her on this twisted logic, he pointed out that NPR had no such policy against calling other countries' techniques "torture." For example, in a July 3, 2009 story about the plight of a Gambian journalist, an NPR story stated:

Musa Saidykhan had been a reporter in his home country of Gambia for more than a decade when he was arrested and later tortured by government officials.

NPR's Alicia Shepard refuses Greenwald's request for an interview, but later appeared before him on a Seattle NPR station on Tuesday. In explaining NPR's policy against using the word torture to describe U.S. government actions and its willingness to use it to describe Gambia's, Shepard commented:

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.

In other words, when Jack Bauer does it, its not torture. His beliefs, being pure, make it so. But the techniques the dark-skinned guy performed on Jack's friend that drove Jack into the rage? That's different. That's torture.

And those detainees in Gitmo who are held without charge or trial indefinitely? We can't call what our government does to them torture because that's not the role of a journalist. And those detainees are different than the Gambian who "was in jail for his beliefs."

As Greenwald pointed out, not only is her belief that American officials' motives were pure highly questionable, but the willingness to characterize torture as dependent on the motive of the would-be torturer is deeply troubling. (Somehow I don't think the judge or jury will buy my argument that while my client performed the actions that constituted the crime, his pure thoughts along the way mean that the law doesn't apply to him!)

As sickening as Shepard's logic is, however, it's also familiar. It's troubling to hear her boldly claim that the motive of the actor determines whether the action is noble or detestable, technique or torture, but it's the same argument the government puts forth in carrying out the death penalty, isn't it? In other words, the state's position that a killing by a citizen can, in some cases, be so terrible that the state needs to kill this person is similar to Shepard's belief that the motive and not conduct determines whether an action is heroic or villainous.

I saw a shirt once that asked, "How can it be o.k. to kill someone to show that killing someone is wrong?" I know my answer to it, but also don't think the death penalty is going away anytime soon. As depressing as that is, my bigger fear is that another question, a new one, will be asked.

Imagine a police report that stated, Shepard-like, that "the tazer was not at anytime deployed to torture him, nor to punish him, but simply to get information." It sounds strange now, but it's getting closer to sounding completely normal. Don't believe me? Consider this story regarding a local police chief's use of a tazer on a 14-year old girl:

A 14-year-old Tucumcari girl is recovering at an Albuquerque hospital after being shot in the head with a Taser dart by Tucucmari Police Chief Roger Hatcher...
The girl was hit in the head Thursday by one of two darts fired simultaneously as she was fleeing, Hatcher said...
Hatcher said be believed he had no other option.

“There’s a lot of issues,” Hatcher said. “She committed a delinquent act. She was running from police across traffic without looking.”
Hatcher said he chased her, ordered her to stop and “then did what I had to do.”

After a CAT scan, a hospital resident told her the dart was “in her brain a little bit, but not much,” Akin said.

She was in pediatric intensive care following the surgery, Akin said. “She seems OK, but she she’s in a lot of pain. Her head is hurting her real bad.”

Police were trying help Akin because she and her daughter had been fighting, Akin said.

Akin said while she could understand the use of a Taser on an adult, it shouldn’t be used on a child.
Akin also said her daughter has epilepsy...
Akin said she and her daughter were arguing over a cell phone...

Hatcher said he got out of his vehicle, called to her and she ran in front of his patrol car across Monroe Street without looking for traffic.

Both were in a dead run when the Taser was fired, Hatcher said.

Hatcher said if he’d been able to grab her and put her on the ground, he would have done it instead of firing the Taser. “There was a lawful reason to do that,” said Hatcher. “I didn’t have another choice and had to get her stopped.” Akin and her daughter were new in town, Hatcher said, and he did not know where she would go. Hatcher said if he had not stopped her the consequences might have been worse.

If a police chief can justify tazering a 14-year old epilepsy victim because she fought with her mom and refused his command to stop by claiming she didn't look both ways while running into the street, claiming, Shepard-like, that while applying electric shocks to people in custody is only wrong if used to punish or not when it's used to supposedly keep her safe, the use of the tazer for "getting information" is not far off.

In an example of shifting attitudes toward tazering, consider what the mother of the 14 year old girl said shortly after hearing that the electrical prongs penetrated her daughter's brain:

Akin said while she could understand the use of a Taser on an adult, it shouldn’t be used on a child.

Fortunately one of the officers reviewing these events is interested in investigating whether charges should be filed:

Hatcher said he plans to refer the case to the Juvenile Probation Office Monday for possible charges.

The tines, they are a changing I guess.

1 comment:

Windypundit said...

The one that gets me is police use of "pain compliance." That means hurting someone until they do what you want, right? Which is different from torture because...

FYI, here's the dashboard camera from the taser incident. The tasing happens off camera, but see if you can figure out why the girl didn't look for traffic before running into the street.