Linguistic Abuse

loaded_words_medium.jpgStephen Poole, author of Unspeak,

“In December 2002, two prisoners at the US base in Bagram, Afghanistan, died after trauma to their legs of such severity that the coroners compared it to the results of being run over by a bus. The subsequent official investigation was nothing if not creative. The death of one was explained in this way:

'No one blow could be determined to have caused the death,' the former senior staff lawyer at Bagram, Col. David L. Hayden, said he had been told by the Army's lead investigator. ‘It was reasonable to conclude at the time that repetitive administration of legitimate force resulted in all the injuries we saw'.

The logic of this is startling. You may compare it in some ways to the Chinese method of execution, used until 1905, known as 'death by a thousand cuts'. Since no one cut can be determined to cause death, no one is responsible for the killing. Similar is the principle behind the firing squad: everyone fires at the same time and one soldier has a blank, so no one soldier can be sure that he killed his comrade. But at least in these two cases the intention is avowedly to cause death. To use the argument as an excuse for 'accidental' extrajudicial killing is different. It is perhaps more like a sophistic application of Zeno's paradox of motion. Since at every place in the flight of an arrow it can be considered at rest, an infinite number of such points of rest cannot possibly add up to travel, so the arrow does not actually move and can never reach its target. Similarly, no number of 'legitimate' things can ever add up to something that is illegitimate. It's just one of those unfortunate things.

But this is deliberate linguistic misdirection. The insertion of the word 'legitimate' before 'force' aims exactly to pre-empt the question of legitimacy. Even if one allows that some force might be legitimate, you're dissuaded from wondering whether a repetitive sequence of legitimate blows can be illegitimate. That principle is common in other areas of law: repetitively playing your music too loud can add up to a disturbance of the peace. 'Legitimate' force also implies that the victim had been found guilty of a crime deserving of violent punishment; but the dead prisoners had never had a trial.

The argument is weak on a more physical level, too. If I tap you lightly on the head a hundred times, you may become very annoyed, but this will not add up to crushing your skull. Equally, repeated light blows to the thighs will not add up to crushing them as though you had been run over by a bus. The 'legitimate force' in these blows must in truth be fierce. And so the whole defence does nothing but beg the question of legitimacy itself.

In fact the blows to the legs were not mild slaps but what's called 'peroneal strikes', a deliberately disabling strike to the side of the leg, just above the knee, which targets the peroneal nerve. One of the former police officers who trained the guards in this technique said that it would 'tear up' a prisoner's legs if used repeatedly. A military policeman at the base, Specialist Jones, testified as to how entertaining it was to brutalise a detainee in this way and hear him cry out to his god: 'It became a kind of running joke, and people kept showing up to give this detainee a common peroneal strike just to hear him scream out "Allah," he said. 'It went on over a 24-hour period, and I would think that it was over 100 strikes.'

Inflicting pain for its comic value might not be many people's idea of 'legitimate force'. By the time the man who so amused the Military Police died, most interrogators at the base had concluded that he was an innocent taxi driver.

The word 'administration', meanwhile, is another example of the bureaucratisation of the language of violence. Medicine is administered; civil government is administration. Punishment is administered only after due process. To call the beating of an unconvicted prisoner the 'administration' of force is already to approve of it, by describing it in the language of official sanction. The very phrase 'repetitive administration' is designed to coat the mind in grey cotton-wool, to conjure vistas of endless similar days in fluorescent-lit offices, and thus to mask the reality of brutal violence inflicted for sadistic enjoyment. In the end, the best translation of Colonel Hayden's words is: 'Yes, we beat these men to death, but we have determined that we had the right to do so.'

Listen to the above podcast.
Steven Poole explains his book.
Bjorn Lomborg’s false dichotomies
In U.S. Report, Brutal Details of 2 Afghan Inmates' Deaths
Army Faltered in Investigating Detainee Abuse
Two Point Scales
We must talk
Fiasco- Interview with the author (listen to his comment about one excellent senior military official named McMaster and his approach in the unit, around the middle of the program);

“I was struck at how successful the 101st Airborne was in Mosul in 2003-04. And some units showed remarkable improvement--the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment had a mediocre first tour of duty in Iraq, but when it went back in 2005 for a second tour, it did extremely well. Col. H.R. McMaster, the regimental commander (and author of a very good book about the Vietnam War, Dereliction of Duty) told his troops that, "Every time you disrespect an Iraqi, you are working for the enemy." I was especially struck by how his regiment handled its prisoners--it even had a program called "Ask the Customer" that quizzed detainees when they were released about whether they felt treated well. This recognized the lesson of past wars that the best way to end an insurgency is to get its leaders to put down their guns and enter the political system, and to get the rank-and-file to desert or switch sides. But it will be harder to discuss the sewage system with the new mayor next year if your troops beat him in his cell when he was your prisoner last year.”

Salon exclusive: The Abu Ghraib files


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This page contains a single entry by Paul published on August 20, 2006 5:07 PM.

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