If the word torture, rooted in the Latin for “twist,” means anything (and it means “the deliberate infliction of excruciating physical or mental pain to punish or coerce”), then waterboarding is a means of torture.
-- William Safire, "On Languge," NYT Magazine, March 9, 2008
On February 18, 1987, a 38-year-old NYT reporter named Bill Keller published his first story about torture.
The young Moscow correspondent -- who, two years later, would win the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Soviet Union -- referred to "the torture case" in writing eloquently about revelations that officials in Petrozavodsk, in the Karelian republic, had been fired in the wake of torture accusations.
The Soviet Union, of course, was famous for its frequent denials that its institutions, including the K.G.B., used torture to interrogate its citizens. But as NYT reporter Scott Shane wrote in June of 2007, comparing 1950s Soviet torture to present-day American interrogation techniques: "Soviets denied such treatment was torture, just as American officials have in recent years."
Shane wrote those words in a "word-for-word" essay in the "Week In Review" section that carried the headline, "Soviet-Style ‘Torture’ Becomes ‘Interrogation.'"
Keller went on to write more than a dozen stories for the NYT -- from the Soviet Union and, later, South Africa -- that referenced interrogation techniques as "torture." His stories never alluded to any questioning of the term by the governments that used the techniques.
And while history has established without question that both the Soviet Union and South Africa subjected its prisoners to torture techniques, it has also made clear that those governments never acknowledged their actions as "torture" -- at least not until well after world outcry brought them to an end.
Keller's reportorial approach strikes us as relevant this morning, as the NYT's executive editor has come under fire for his comments yesterday defending the NYT's refusal to refer to "waterboarding" as torture in its news pages.
A study by students at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard has documented that the NYT had used the term "torture" to describe waterboarding only twice in 143 references between 2002 and 2008 -- after having called it torture in 44 of 54 stories between 1931 and 1999.
"Waterboarding" is a form of water torture in which a prisoner is held still while water is poured over the face to simulate the feeling of drowning, while leaving no physical marks.
Keller vigorously disputed the study in a story posted on the NYT website last night, and insisted that the NYT's policy of not calling waterboarding "torture" -- which he referred to as "a politically correct term of art" -- is entirely proper. He called the Harvard student study "misleading and tendentious."
Keller's argument is that because Bush administration officials have objected to the use of the term "torture" in describing waterboarding, for the NYT to use it in its news pages "amounts to taking sides in a political dispute."
But what Keller's current stance ignores is his own position as a reporter: that a government's definition of torture doesn't necessarily match the reality.
In his own foreign reporting, Keller didn't bother to clutter his stories with the obvious -- and irrelevant -- denials by Soviet and South African government officials that they were engaged in torture. He used his own judgement to recognize torture for what it was.
"A factory worker, according to the report, was kicked so severely that doctors had to remove a ruptured spleen," Keller wrote in his 1987 account of Soviet police brutality. "The medical report said doctors had found three pints of clotted blood in the abdomen."
In applying a different standard to the NYT's coverage of waterboarding, Keller has betrayed a reprehensible weakness in the face of his own government's stance on torture -- one that he never showed in his years as a courageous and straightforward reporter.