‘EIT’ used to whitewash torture, American linguists can’t even

IMG_0329Every year the American Dialect Society has the final say on the word of the year. They gather at a conference along with the Linguistic Society of America and in a fun and rowdy (for linguists) event nominate, debate, and vote on the word of the year.

The playful winner in the “most useful” category was:

even: v. to deal with or reconcile difficult situations or emotions (from “I can’t even”)

The “most euphemistic” category brought up the serious topic of torture and I, an interloper, enthusiastically voted for:

EIT: abbreviation for the already euphemistic “enhanced interrogation technique.”

One linguist who spoke in support of the nomination emphasized the doubly euphemistic nature of EIT. EIT adds layer upon layer of cover up to the unconscionable reality that our government has been torturing people. We went from understanding torture quite clearly as a bad thing, to a somewhat benign sounding “enhanced interrogation technique” that made one wonder if we might not just be asking questions with a firm hand, to the completely banal “EIT” which evokes nothing greater than the acronyms EKG or CPR do. As Orwell said: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable…”

Such is the use of EIT, which won the category.

EIT has been used to hide the criminality of some of the leaders of our country and prevent any significant accountability for a widespread torture program that is a stain on our collective conscience. The media has been complicit in this linguistic cover up.

Examples abound, but a quick comparison of coverage of the release of the Senate Torture Report, as it’s commonly called, and the Central Intelligence Agency response to the report, demonstrates how some media outlets have been complicit in the whitewashing.

In a CBS News report on John Brennan, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, and his response to the report, the word “torture” is only used once, simply to state the director of the CIA wouldn’t characterize the EITs as “torture.” In the accompanying video the reporters use either “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “enhanced techniques.” The accompanying text uses EIT five times.

An ABC News story on the Senate report uses “torture” in the headline and text only because the Senate report was commonly called the “Senate Torture Report.” The only other use of torture is to say that human rights groups describe the CIA’s activities as “torture.” ABC then goes on to use EIT three times.

Based on the reporting of CBS and ABC, one might be left questioning if the US government tortured people, which is clearly did.

Time has an online article that is meant to help guide readers through the 6,000 page Senate Torture Report. They use “torture” twice in the text, once in the headline. They then use EIT 16 times, always as “EIT program” even though the report itself, as far as I can tell, does not use this term. The report does use the term torture, which Time decided to use sparingly.

By contrast, the New York Times in discussing Brennan’s reaction to the torture report uses torture five times. It uses EIT only three times when quoting people talking about torture. The AP similarly uses “torture” in it’s reporting of Brennan’s reaction and also uses EIT twice, only in quotes.

In contrast to ABC, CBS, and Time who seem to question whether torture has happened, the New York Times and the AP state the truth and describe torture as what it is.

Major American news outlets like CBS and ABC are using the veneer of objectivity to hide the fact that by any common standard, the US government has been torturing people in contravention of domestic and international law.

I’m impressed that this group of linguists has taken a stand to remind us of the moral significance of our word choice.

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