Common Article III of the Geneva Convention (1949) prohibits cruel treatment and torture. It prohibits violence to life and person, and humiliating and degrading treatment. And it requires signatories to provide prisoners of war all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized people. Civilized people might read this and think, What part of 'don't torture prisoners' do you not understand? But administration officials want the language of the Geneva convention clarified, which means that they want to define for themselves offenses like torture, cruel and unusual punishment, and habeas corpus the right of an accused to know the charges and fight them in a court of law.
Is it the case that torture, like beauty, is actually in the eye of the beholder? Torture comes from the Latin word meaning “to twist”– it’s actually related to torque – and although the Oxford English Dictionary defines torture as “The infliction of severe bodily pain, as punishment or a means of persuasion,” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales once wrote an opinion twisting torture to mean nothing less than "organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,” a definition that even our more aggressive politicians are reluctant to embrace.
The detainee treatment bill passed by Congress last week was similarly controversial because it gives the president the power “to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions” (Military Commissions Act of 2006,sec. 6.a.3). It also prevents American courts from reviewing challenges to the president’s interpretation: “No court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider an application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by or on behalf of an alien detained by the United States who has been determined by the United States to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant or is awaiting such determination” (sec. 7.a).
The current debate over the meaning of torture, inhumane treatment, and the right to a day in court spotlights the struggle over the civil rights of detainees suspected of terrorism. But it highlights as well the problematic nature of definition.
All words have spin, and while some people treat meaning as if it were encoded in our dictionaries, law books, treaties, and sacred texts, meaning is actually created through interpretation, argument and the establishment of consensus. That’s why scholars, lawyers, politicians, and clerics spend much of their time debating the meaning, not just of isolated words, but of words used in context. And not only when that meaning is particularly obscure, as in some poetry, the tax code, or the Old Testament, to name some thorny examples, but also when it is clear to civilized people, for example in the Bill of Rights.
If experts disagree over the meaning of words – not just elusive terms like love or technical ones like global warming, then it’s no surprise that ordinary people wonder about their meaning as well. But redefining words to change the reality that lies behind them is another matter. Biologists call evolution a theory because it provides the best explanation so far of an incontrovertible set of facts, what many people see as the realities of life on earth. But dismissing evolution as merely a theory by claiming that a “theory” is only an unprovable conjecture competing with alternative unprovable conjectures is, to put it mildly, far from an intelligent design.
In the same way, calling what most people regard as torture a permissible punishment and suspending what civilized people think of as the right to a fair trial doesn’t make prisoner mistreatment any more palatable, or any more civilized.
Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” presents a frequently-cited example of how to impose meaning by fiat:
‘When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to bemaster - that's all.’
But when the power to define is vested in one single person, be it Humpty Dumpty, a president intent on redefining "torture," as George Bush has done, or a common word like "is," as Bill Clinton tried to do, then that person may become the master, at least for a time, but the meaning, while forced, doesn’t exactly become true. In other words, the theory, while it may be supported by a controlling legal authority, is not supported by the facts. It's simply a masking of reality, a more refined version of the blunter saying, popular during the Vietnam era though variously attributed to Lyndon Johnson, Robert S. McNamara, and Nixon henchman Charles Colson, “When you’ve got' em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow."
The Geneva Convention may not be the last word on torture, but treaty or no treaty, law or no law, no word’s meaning is ever fixed, and the right to define, or to control, both language and the reality behind it – the right, in short, to be master – seldom goes unchallenged for long, in dictionaries, in the press, on the Web, in the courts, from the pulpit, or in the voting booth. That’s how civilized people create meaning.