Why are the media so happy to use the T word in a child-abuse case?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Feb. 10 2010 6:08 PM

Watering Torture Down

Why are the media so happy to use the T word in a child-abuse case?

Dick Cheney. Click image to expand.
Dick Cheney

There's a good deal of towel-snapping going on in the blogosphere today over rampant use of the word water-boarding to describe the punishment an Iraq war veteran meted out to his 4-year-old daughter. What is not in dispute is that Joshua Tabor, a U.S. Army sergeant who served in Iraq for 15 months, was arrested on Jan. 31 and charged with assaulting a child for, among other things, holding his small daughter's head over a bathroom sink and dunking her for refusing to say her alphabet. Also not in dispute is that almost 200 media outlets, by recent count—including ABC.com, CBS.com, the New York Daily News, and the Daily Mail —used the word water-boarding in their Tabor story, often in the headline. Unwilling to go quite that far, other publications tried to make the same point a bit more subtly: AFP thus put quotation marks around water-boarding and USA Today's headline doubles down by using those same quotation marks plus the word mock. CNN.com, the outlier playing it safe, just stuck with abused.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

So what is it the bloggers are yelling about? As Jared Keller at the Atlantic explains, a fight promptly broke out over whether Tabor's conduct is actually water-boarding, with Andrew Sullivan warning that "[n]o doubt Marc Thiessen [former speechwriter for George W. Bush] will object that since she wasn't strapped to an actual board and only dunked three or four times, rather than 183, and her father wasn't in the CIA, she wasn't really waterboarded." As Sullivan predicted, various right-wing bloggers flipped out because it isn't technically water-boarding if the victim isn't variously "strapped to a board" and the act isn't performed "by professionals in controlled conditions" while a "cloth is placed over the face and water is poured over the cloth."

The real outrage is not, however, whether the word water-boarding is the proper descriptor for Tabor's abuse. That just begs the question. But now that we've waded in, let's settle the dispute. Todd Stancil—police chief in Yelm, Wash., where Tabor and his family live—stated that the child was forced to lie face up on her back while her father "push[ed] her head into the water right up to her eyeline" and that, according to Tabor's girlfriend and neighbors, "he also ran water over the flailing girl's face, taking her to the edge of drowning." If this is true, then yes, Tabor's conduct is not technically water-boarding, under the definition laid out in the OLC's secret 2005 memo that details the procedure.

But if the bloggers on the right are technically correct, they are also completely missing the point: The narrow legal question of whether or not Tabor "water-boarded" his daughter masks the outrageousness of the media's sudden willingness to embrace the word. Newspapers that have twisted themselves into pretzels to avoid using words like torture or even water-board have suddenly embraced the term in the sloppiest possible way.

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The word water-board itself is a legal and rhetorical fig leaf. We have traditionally been reluctant to use it precisely because it's so loaded. William Safire traced its first usage to a 2004 New York Times piece by James Risen, David Johnston, and Neil Lewis. Safire also quoted Darius Rejali, author of Torture and Democracy and a professor at Reed College, who explained that "there is a special vocabulary for torture. When people use tortures that are old, they rename them and alter them a wee bit. They invent slightly new words to mask the similarities. …. Waterboarding is clearly a jailhouse joke. It refers to surfboarding"—a word found as early as 1929—as in, "they are attaching somebody to a board and helping them surf."

What's appalling, then, about the dozens of eager media references to water-boarding in connection with the Tabor story is the willingness of the media to attach the words water-boarding and torture to Tabor's act of child abuse. Newspapers that have diligently limited themselves to calling water-boarding "enhanced interrogation" in the context of the Guantanamo detainees are suddenly ready to use the word now that a 4-year-old girl is involved.

ABC news, for instance, has largely used the words "harsh interrogation techniques" and "severe tactics" to describe water-boarding when it's done to American detainees. But the Joshua Tabor story that ran yesterday on ABC states that "the girl and the father admitted to the torture" and describes "the torture technique of waterboarding," with a link to another ABC story that quite deliberately avoids ever calling it torture. We are evidently only willing to call such conduct torture if it's applied to people we want to see as innocent.

In a 2008 interview with Harper's Scott Horton, Professor Rejali warned of this very phenomenon. "I think we need to pay attention to our new culture of irresponsibility. We live now in an age where something is or is not torture depending on when and who it is done to," he said. "Zapping an angry businessman on an airplane cabin will be called torture, but zapping a foreigner might just be good security and completely excusable. This is bad." If we begin to think of water-boarding as scandalous as applied to some and perfectly justified when applied to others, we have just changed it from an illegal act of torture into a plausible menu selection.

Joshua Tabor's punishment of his young daughter is despicable and clearly illegal. But when the media start making the leap from criminal child abuse to water-boarding, it both sensationalizes and diminishes the horror of the act by privileging one kind of victim over another. We are delighted to use the term to depict an act that may or may not be torture, just as we are terrified to use it to describe conduct that plainly is.

Water-boarding is torture. It has been illegal for centuries. The only thing more dangerous than allowing it to slide lazily into our crime reporting in order to generate reader outrage is the suggestion that readers should only actually be outraged when it's done to obviously "innocent" people.

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