Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Afghan parsing

When you torture the language enough, you can probably make it say anything, rather
like an Afghan detainee. And recently we've been forced to witness a linguistic vivisection of nearly unparalleled brutality.

Begin with the word "detainee" itself. Canadian troops don't take prisoners; they apprehend detainees. The next step after "prisoner," of course, is "prisoner of war." We're fighting a war, right enough, and the Taliban certainly seem to think they're at war as well. But a "prisoner of war" has all of the rights accorded under the Geneva Conventions. The Taliban, as an irregular army, do not. "Detainees" it is, then, or if you prefer the American term, "enemy combatants."

So what happens, then, when our forces apprehend a detainee? Whoa, hold on a minute. There's many a slip, it seems, between "apprehend" and "detainee." I cite for my authority no less a figure than Gen. Walter Natynczyk.

The unfortunate man who was tortured by the Afghans--see the explosive article last Sunday by Paul Koring--wasn't actually "detained." Heavens, no, he was merely held for "questioning" and then released.

In Canada, anyone with a passing knowledge of civil liberties knows that "held for questioning" is a form of arrest. Either the man was free to go or he was detained. There's no in-between here. But plenty of room, it seems, for distinctions without differences.

And now we have what some regard as significant backpedaling by the embattled foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay. He's not simply chanting the "Not a single Taliban prisoner turned over by Canadian Forces can be proven to be abused" mantra any more. Now he's admitting that there was "credible evidence" that torture took place.

Slam-dunk, right? Not so fast. "Credible evidence," says MacKay, isn't "absolute proof." Note the word "absolute" that the wiseacre slipped in there. We don't have absolute proof of anything. But never mind the precautionary principle that "credible evidence" should invoke: it appears that the minister was waiting all along for divine revelation.

As it turns out, Bill Clinton did have sex with that woman. And our forces handed prisoners over to the Afghan authorities to be tortured. And both the military and the government have been desperately trying to cover it up ever since.

The truth will out. And it won't take the linguistic equivalent of electrical cables to make it happen.

(As an aside, the word "whistle-blower" has recently come in for a little rough handling as well. Christie Blatchford, in a now thoroughly discredited column, referred to diplomat Richard Colvin as a "so-called whistleblower." And this morning, Norman Spector is complaining that he didn't blow his whistle loudly enough.)

[H/t Montreal Simon and Aaron Wherry]

UPDATE: Whoops! It seems that the good General misspoke himself. Kady O'Malley liveblogs:

So after getting a "bad feel" off this Afghan, and subsequently searching him, and photographing him, the Canadian military handed him over to Afghan custody "in good faith." No, he doesn't know why he didn't find out about this before today -- thus causing him to inadvertently provide incorrect information in his most recent statement -- but he's going to look into it. [emphasis added]

[H/t POGGE.]

NOTE TO SELF: Try not to bury the lede next time, OK? :)

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