Word Watch: Waterboarding

Friday, November 09, 2007


Robert Mukasey was confirmed this week as attorney general. The process moved the definition of waterboarding into the spotlight. As media struggle to find out what the interrogation technique entails, the working definition has been "simulated drowning." But those who've experienced and performed it say it is drowning. Two newspaper editors weigh in.

Comments [16]

Richard from Chicago

If this was commonplace, I'd be concerned, but its only been used on two or three individuals when warranted ... I am having a difficult time seeing as how this was unjustified.

Nov. 13 2007 12:19 PM
Linda from Oregon

Since I do not watch mainstream media anymore - I was appalled but not surprised at their fear to be honest. Throughout history the American government has condemned torture used on it's own soldiers/citizens - yet now that they do it it's only "interrogation". Perhaps then we owe a lot of despots, dictators and sadistic people a big apology. Hitler didn't use torture - he interrogated people. In Viet Nam our soldiers weren't tortured - they were interrogated. Perhaps it's time our government quit playing by a double standard. What is a terrible tragedy is the precedent we have set up for other countries to torture our own soldiers and citizens by claiming that the US gov. itself has stated it's only interrogation.

Maybe we should hand some of these media people over to places like Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia so they can learn first hand all about "interrogation".

I am so frustrated and disgusted by mainstream media not upholding why they are there - or is it caused by so few corporations controlling almost all our media? Those corporations that donated so generously to Bush. Bravo to those who still have the guts to stand up to the Corporate presidency - and thank goodness for the BBC too.

Nov. 13 2007 01:12 AM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Kudos on another good job!

As has been commented elsewhere, sometimes it is just so awful you need black humor.

When Charles Gibson called the 1.5 million Armenians in the Turkish genocide Americans (as wrote his closed-captioner) and never corrected it, I knew that we were in for a rougher ride with this new news media than a few euphemisms for torture would be worth bothering about.

It was bad enough when Ted Koppel went along as a cheerlesder in the storming of Saddam, echoing the drum beat of mindless, now endless war.

Glad to see another New Havener commenting, Ms. Martin.

Your comments section is a great forum.

Nov. 12 2007 03:05 AM
Duran from Philadelphia PA.

This segment was equally great to hear from your show, and at the same time utterly frustrating to sit through. I was utterly disgusted at the extremely "ivory tower" stance the news paper editors were taking on the issue. US Military Personnel who's sole job it is to train our soldiers how to deal with torture, and our own veterans of foreign wars who have suffered torture first hand state how horrible it is, and how horrible it is that our own country is involved in it.

And yet we not only do it, but our guardians of knowledge, the media condone, through in action, the acts that are being committed.

On the Media, by looking at the title alone, I know is a commentary show "On" the media. As someone who always appreciated, and enjoyed his media crit classes in the show, I understand its purpose. But, I also recognized the voices I heard in this segment.

As reporters, please challenge more, and raise the awareness more, of the people who listen to this station, through all of the shows you broadcast of the true injustice involved here. This goes above "The war on terror", and damages the soul of our nation.

Please continue to do the great work you do. And please continue to question our morals as a nation as this segment suggests that we should be doing more so of.

Thank you.

Nov. 11 2007 08:12 PM
Bob R from CT

The US did NOT sentence a Japanese soldier to 15 years hard labor just "for waterboarding". He did far worse things.

Sheeplike, 'On the Media' is propagating this false meme, and I am quite disappointed. They need to do their own research, not just repeat what others have said.

Defendant: Asano, Yukio

Docket Date: 53/ May 1 - 28, 1947, Yokohama, Japan

Charge: Violation of the Laws and Customs of War: 1. Did willfully and unlawfully mistreat and torture PWs. 2. Did unlawfully take and convert to his own use Red Cross packages and supplies intended for PWs.

Specifications:beating using hands, fists, club; kicking; water torture; burning using cigarettes; strapping on a stretcher head downward

Verdict: 15 years CHL


There seems to have been no one prosecuted for waterboarding alone. Prove me wrong, 'On the Media'.

Nov. 11 2007 03:31 PM
Daniel Bennett from Washington, DC

First a discussion of the definitions of interrogation and torture. The administration refers to their methods as interrogation, so it matters how tough the interrogation should be balanced against how vital the information is. For them there is no torture when data is gained. But Merriam Webster defines torture as, "the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure." An apt simile is that rape is to sex as torture is to interrogation. In torture, a person is asked questions. In torture as in rape there is a power dynamic where one side controls. In civil societies, people have the right to stay silent, to have counsel, have some right to end the questioning and the expectation to be treated humanely. Definitions do not rest on whether there is information to be gained, but whether the person being questioned is can assert their rights. It is true that in the past, torture that led to information was considered a form of interrogation. But similar to our understanding of human rights, our definitions change over time. For this reason, it is reasonable to assert that when a person has no rights, it is then impossible to have an interrogation. And then any action taken by those in power to cause physical pain of any sort are committing torture, because there is no real interrogation. Just as date rape is always rape, water boarding is always torture.

Nov. 11 2007 03:00 PM
Tim McDonough from Brooklyn ny

Perhaps a little more preparation would have made a better story. Why was drowning referred to as a gerund and not the present progressive tense of the verb "to drown?" The definition of the present progressive tense is "an activity in process." Drowning is the act in progress of killing someone by submersion. That sounds like torture to me. Why wasn't the term "near drowning" brought up as a replacement for simulated drowning. This is the term the medical profession uses when a person is saved from drowning or is resuscitated. Again, submitting someone to near drowning and therefore near death, is torture.

BTW, your glib comment at the end of the story about not paying attention it's only the media wasn't appreciated by this listener. We need to hold the media to high standards not to find it in our hearts to accept theses pandering clowns posing as news commentators.

Nov. 11 2007 11:20 AM
Terry McKenna from Dover NJ

The segment about water boarding was thought provoking. “Water boarding” seems a useful enough label for what most of us know to be torture (most except perhaps a few over scrupulous journalists and the new attorney general).

What you failed to point out is that journalists rarely know all that much about what they write about. And when it comes to matters like torture, how can they. But water boarding is hardly the only example of what journalists don’t understand. A more egregious example is the new definition of “torture” that includes the notion that the victim must believe he is about to experience organ failure. But organ failure is not painful. At least not all the time. Over 5 plus decades, I have been hit by a car (painless, due to shock) and lost the hearing in one ear (completely painless). Organ failure is not about pain.

A truer definition of torture would have stopped water boarding cold.

But the definition and the subsequent policy were crafted by lawyers (who also know little except the law) and enjoyed by policy wonks and journalists, and to this day, no one has even noticed.

Nov. 11 2007 10:36 AM
Oliver from Davis,CA

"Controlled drowning" is what it is.

The dictionary quoting sounded like a deceptive dodge: Quoting from "drown" in response to you specifying the gerund form as the issue.

Nov. 11 2007 03:30 AM
Huw from Brooklyn, NY

There is a very simple gauge against which to judge the media and government handwaving over waterboarding: What would they be saying if it were a "foe" using the technique on a "friend"? To take a parallel case, Americans and Israelis call it "terrorism" when Palestinians throw stones, but call it "self-defense" when Israelis level whole villages. (Likewise the Americans in Iraq.)

If it were to turn out that Gilad Shalit were being water-boarded, the technique would very quickly and widely become torture on every editorial page in the US.

Nov. 10 2007 11:21 PM
John Fisher from Santa Barbara

Great piece. I have added it to the references at the end of my own blog piece on torture at

I find the lack of critical attention by major newspapers chilling. The hypocrisy demonstrated by the hair-splitting over the definition of drowning, coupled with ignoring the fact of torture, is shameful. And it's bad news for future news coverage.

Let me say that On The Media is the best thing on public radio news, adding kudos to "To The Point" on KCRW too.

Nov. 10 2007 10:44 PM

If we have to resort to semantics to justify a practice, it is obviously wrong. Shame on us.

Nov. 10 2007 07:29 PM
blackbelt_jones from USA

I checked the dictionary, and I can't believe it, but there is no definition of drowning that doesn't include death. Nevertheless, when I hear "simulated drowning", and "the sensation of drowning", I don't get the sense that you're actually pouring water into someone's lungs. I would submit that "partial drowning" might be a more accurate expression than "simulated drowning".

Nov. 10 2007 12:46 PM

If the definition cannot be agreed upon by these spineless media corporations, Then lets agree on something which is undeniable, every instance of waterboarding by the US reported in the middle east creates tens if not hundreds of thousands of more terrorists. So that leaves you with the question is it effective in preventing terrorism, i would respond resounding No!

Nov. 10 2007 12:32 PM
Rose Martin from New Haven, CT

I was especially amused that the basic definition of "torture" in the Webster's Dictionary (which Weissman loves so much) not only would include waterboarding (see definition 1a and 1b, and possibly definition 2), but he himself, by his overrefining the argument/meaning of the words 'drowning' and 'electrocuting' is actually engaged in 'torture:'

1 a: anguish of body or mind : agony b: something that causes agony or pain2: the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure3: distortion or overrefinement of a meaning or an argument : straining
- Webster's Online Dictionary

Nov. 10 2007 11:21 AM
Marina Aizen from Argentina

Hi. For 13 years I was a reporter in the US. I have learned so much just reading and listening to the american media. All of that have changed-for the worse. I can not believe the lack of outrage about the issue of torture. This very week I happened to visite a former detention camp in Buenos Aires, were waterboarding was a common technique. I visited it with a former prisioner. The first thing I felt there was disgust. Torture is not a semantic definition. Not even a moral one. It is a matter of disgust. Deep disgust. It is almost a stomach thing. And that very sense is what the american media and politians are lacking of. Anyway, thank you for bringing this debate to NPR. You just need to add to it a leattle bit of the nasty, very nasty feeling that torture encompasses.

Nov. 10 2007 09:03 AM

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