January 10, 2006
BEYOND any shadow of a doubt, the ugliest phrase to enter the English language in 2005 was “extraordinary rendition”. To those of us who love words, this phrase’s brutalisation of meaning is an infallible signal of its intent to deceive.
“Extraordinary” is an ordinary enough adjective, but its sense is being stretched here to include more sinister meanings that your dictionary will not provide: “secret”, “ruthless” and “extralegal”.
As for “rendition”, the English language permits four meanings: a performance, a translation, a surrender this meaning is now considered archaic or an “act of rendering”, which leads us to the verb “to render”, among whose 17 possible meanings you will not find “to kidnap and covertly deliver an individual or individuals for interrogation to an undisclosed address in an unspecified country where torture is permitted”.
Language, too, has laws, and those laws tell us that this new American usage is improper a crime against the word. Every so often the habitual Newspeak of politics throws up a term whose calculated blandness makes us shiver with fear yes, and loathing.
“Clean words can mask dirty deeds,” New York Times columnist William Safire wrote in 1993, in response to the arrival of another such phrase, “ethnic cleansing”. “Final solution” is a further, even more horrible locution of this Orwellian, double-plus-ungood type. “Mortality response”, a euphemism for death by killing that I first heard during the Vietnam War, is another. This is not a pedigree of which any newborn usage should be proud.
People use such phrases to avoid using others whose meaning would be problematically over-apparent. “Ethnic cleansing” and “final solution” were ways of avoiding the word “genocide”, and to say “extraordinary rendition” is to reveal one’s squeamishness about saying “the export of torture”. However, as Cecily remarks in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, “When I see a spade, I call it a spade,” and what we have here is not simply a spade, it’s a shovel and it’s shovelling a good deal of ordure.
Now that Senator John McCain has forced on a reluctant White House his amendment putting the internationally accepted description of torture “cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment” into American law, in spite of Vice-President Dick Cheney’s energetic attempts to defeat it, the growing belief that the Bush Administration could be trying to get around the McCain amendment by the “rendition” of people adjudged torture-worthy to less delicately inclined countries merits closer scrutiny.
We are beginning to hear the names and stories of men seized and transported in this fashion: Maher Arar, a Canadian-Syrian, was captured by the CIA on his way to the United States and taken via Jordan to Syria where, according to his lawyer, he was “brutally physically tortured”. Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Kuwaiti-Lebanese origin, was kidnapped in Macedonia and taken for interrogation to Afghanistan, he says, where he was repeatedly beaten. Syrian-born Mohammed Haydar Zammar says that he was grabbed in Morocco and then spent four years in a Syrian dungeon.
Lawsuits are under way. The lawyers for the plaintiffs suggest that their clients were only a few of the victims, that in Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria and perhaps elsewhere the larger pattern of the extraordinary rendition project is yet to be uncovered. Inquiries are under way in Canada, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. The CIA’s own internal inquiry admits to “under 10” such cases, which to many ears sounds like another bit of double-talk. Tools are created to be used, and it seems improbable, to say the least, that so politically risky and morally dubious a system would be set up and then barely employed.
The US authorities have been taking a characteristically robust line on this issue. On her recent European trip, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice more or less told European governments to back off the issue which they duly, and tamely, did, claiming to have been satisfied by her assurances. Soon afterward, at the end of December, the German Government ordered the closing of an Islamic centre near Munich after finding documents encouraging suicide attacks in Iraq. This is a club which, we are told, Khaled al-Masri often visited before being extraordinarily rendered to Afghanistan. “Aha!” we are encouraged to think. “Obvious bad guy! Render his sorry butt anywhere you like!”
What’s wrong with this kind of thinking is that, as Isabel Hilton of The Guardian wrote last July: “The delusion that officeholders know better than the law is an occupational hazard of the powerful and one to which those of an imperial cast of mind are especially prone When disappearance became state practice across Latin America in the ’70s it aroused revulsion in democratic countries, where it is a fundamental tenet of legitimate government that no state actor may detain or kill another human being without having to answer to the law.”
In other words, the question isn’t whether or not a given individual is “good” or “bad”. The question is whether or not we are whether or not our governments have dragged us into immorality by discarding due process of law, which is generally accorded to be second only to individual rights as the most important pillar of a free society.
The White House, however, plainly believes that it has public opinion behind it in this and other contentious matters, such as secret wiretapping. Cheney recently told reporters: “When the American people look at this, they will understand and appreciate what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
He may be right for the moment, though the controversy shows no signs of dying down. It remains to be seen how long the American people are prepared to go on accepting that the end justifies practically any means Cheney cares to employ.
In the beginning is the word. Where one begins by corrupting language, worse corruptions swiftly follow. Sitting as the Supreme Court to rule on torture in December 2005, Britain’s law lords spoke to the world in words that were simple and clear. “The torturer is abhorred not because the information he produces may be unreliable,” Lord Rodger of Earlsferry said, “but because of the barbaric means he uses to extract it.”
“Torture is an unqualified evil,” Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood added. “It can never be justified. Rather, it must always be punished.”
The dreadful probability is that the United States’ outsourcing of torture will allow it to escape punishment. It will not allow it to escape moral obloquy.
Salman Rushdie is the award-winning author of numerous books, including Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses.