Let's Ditch "Detainee" and "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" and Use the Right Words: "Prisoner" and "Torture"





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Caroline V. Hamilton has a PhD from Berkeley. Her scholarly articles have appeared in The Paris Review, The Journal of American Studies, Oxford German Studies, The Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, and elsewhere. She lives in Pittsburgh.

In The Nonviolent Alternative, Thomas Merton reflected upon what he called “the language of Auschwitz.”  “In destroying human beings, and human values on a mass scale,” he wrote, “the Gestapo also subjected the German language to violence and crude perversion.”  Before I read Merton, I would have characterized misleading political language as “Orwellian,” but Merton’s assessment is even more darkly accurate.

Sadly, it is also relevant to American English today.  Thanks to official defenders of the Iraq War and to their uncritical echo-chambers, some egregious euphemisms have become common in ordinary speech.  By failing to resist them, American journalists have failed their readers and listeners.

The two most objectionable of these euphemisms are “detainee” and “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  Television and radio journalists use these terms without compunction, but they are ideologically loaded.

One of the most notorious devices at Auschwitz, according to Merton, was the “Boger swing,” a contraption by which people were hung upside down by the wrists and ankles and whipped.  “My talking machine,” the inventor, Wilhelm Boger, boasted, “will make you talk.”  Later, when on trial at Nuremburg, he defended it in a way that foreshadows Donald Rumsfeld:  “The swing was not intended as torture: it was the only effective means of physical suasion.”

After having himself waterboarded, Christopher Hitchens commented, “I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry:  ‘If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.’ Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”

Yet the term has gone uncontested.  Katie Couric, for example, used it insistently to interrogate a government official after the killing of Osama bin Laden.  She wanted to know if “enhanced interrogation techniques” had contributed to the discovery of bin Laden’s hideout.

“Detainee” is another bloody stain on the linguistic landscape.  The coinage dates back to 1928, but it has only recently become routine.  Yet by both definition and convention, “detention” is temporary and fleeting.  It suggests children kept after school for misbehavior.

Again, journalists have adopted the word “detainee” without compunction.  A November 19, 2011 story on NPR, for example, was entitled “Inside Guantanamo, Detainees Live in Limbo.” A more colorful alternative to “detain” is “buttonhole,” which dates back to 1560.  Replace “detainee” with “buttonholee” and see how it sounds.

We have become so oblivious to the language of Auschwitz that the word “prisoner” has vanished from ordinary speech.  This is all the more ironic since “Kafkaesque” is firmly established in our vocabulary, and Kafka is especially famous for his novels The Castle and The Trial, in which a man is subjected to a baffling and invisible authority.  “Someone must have slandered Joseph K.,” The Trial begins, “for one day, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.”

Thanks to television and radio journalists, other annoyingly elevated, fraudulent, and euphemistic terms pepper American speech.  “In harm’s way” has replaced “in danger”; “passed away” has replaced “died”; and “the fallen” has replaced “the dead.”  (It has recently become rude to die.  When will we think of a euphemism for being born, another bloody business? )

Too many journalists talk like political candidates, anxious to seem trendy, afraid to offend.  Their apparent lack of critical acumen makes me wonder what they studied in journalism school.  Not Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” evidently.  Not Merton.

In The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), Paul Fussell proposed that the inglorious trench warfare of World War I put an end to the Kiplingesque jingoism of war and gave rise to a mature and appropriate irony.  Rupert Brooke’s naively elegaic “The Soldier”—“there’s some corner of a foreign field/that is forever England”— gave way to the bitter ironies of Siegfried Sassoon’s “The Hero”:

He thought how “Jack,” cold-footed, useless swine
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went Up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. 

“Every war is ironic,” Fussell, a veteran of World War II, observed,” because every war is worse than expected.  Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends."  Is this not true of the Iraq War?

Americans are internationally stereotyped as an unironic people.  The language of the Iraq War would give credence to that stereotype, except that David Cameron and British television, having apparently forgotten World War I, are fond of the same euphemisms.  “We learn from history,” Hegel remarked, “that we do not learn from history.”

Surely we can learn for a few years.  If the Iraq War has indeed ended, let its euphemisms end with it.


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