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March 14, 2009

Detainees and Prisoners

Yesterday the Obama administration announced a new policy to govern the holding of terror suspects. Here’s what Attorney General Eric Holder announced:

“As we work towards developing a new policy to govern detainees, it is essential that we operate in a manner that strengthens our national security, is consistent with our values, and is governed by law.”

Followers of HOTM know I put a lot of stock in words. So two things struck me about Holder’s statement.

First, what does it mean to “work towards developing” something? It seems that not only does the Obama administration lack a policy, not only is it not developing a policy, it is merely working toward developing a policy. Is this like being engaged to be engaged? Maybe. Maybe there will eventually be a marriage. But if you really plan to get hitched, why not just get engaged? If you really want a new policy, why not actually develop one? I mean, if a house painter told you he was working towards developing a way to paint your house, how confident would you be that the job would ever get done?

Second, why is the administration (and just about everyone else, including the liberal blogosphere, including even the excellent Scott Horton, who expresses his own doubts here) continuing to call people held at Guantanamo and other prisons “detainees”? For me, “detention” is something that happens to you at a place you first arrived at of your own volition. For example, if I mail a letter at the post office and government agents show up and hold me there for an hour, I think it’s fair to say I’ve been detained. If the same agents hood me, drug me, manacle me, fly me to Guantanamo and hold me there for five years, I think it’s fair to say I’ve been imprisoned.

So why the squeamishness about calling people in the second hypothetical (actually, it’s not at all hypothetical) prisoners? Simple: the people in question have received neither a trial nor traditional notions of due process. It would be uncomfortable to acknowledge that America imprisons people without trial or other due process. Suggesting that we’re merely detaining them is a way of sanitizing the whole business.

The use of language for political sanitization makes me uncomfortable. It’s like calling torture “aggressive interrogation.” If we really need to torture prisoners, for example, let’s make a case for it. But if proponents instead feel the need to try to sell me on the notion by reassuring me that all that’s going on is the “aggressive interrogation of “detainees,” I sense these proponents lack the courage of their own supposed convictions. And if they themselves are insufficiently confident in the necessity of imprisoning people without due process to make a clear case for the policy, how can they expect anyone else to be persuaded?

As long as the government calls prisoners detainees, I’ll wager any policy changes will be mostly cosmetic.

P.S. For an example of life imitating art — in this case, the covert operations group at the heart of the plot of Fault Line — last week Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reported on an “executive assassination ring” that reported directly to the Vice President. Amazingly close match to the setup in Fault Line.

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