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Torture debate: From Orwellian to Kafkaesque

Dick Cheney's rhetoric parallels literary
critiques of language and torture

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Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s ongoing public defense of “enhanced interrogation methods” bears ironic resemblance to two literary critiques of language and torture – to be found in Franz Kafka’s short story, “In the Penal Colony,” and George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.”

In a new analysis, author Bruce T. Murray explores the Orwellian elements of Cheney's rhetoric and its similarities with Kafka's fictional character, "the Officer."
Some highlights:

Cheney: “I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do.”


The Officer: “This process and this execution, which you now have an opportunity to admire, have at present no more open supporters in our colony. I am its single defender and at the same time the single advocate for the legacy of the Old Commandant."

Cheney: “Yet for all these exacting efforts to do a hard and necessary job and to do it right, we hear from some quarters nothing but feigned outrage based on a false narrative. In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists.”

The Officer: “The new Commandant’s women will sit around in a circle and perk up their ears. You will say something like, ‘Among us the judicial procedures are different,’ or ‘With us the accused is questioned before the verdict,’ or ‘With us the accused hears the judgment’ or ‘With us there are punishments other than the death penalty’ or ‘With us there was torture only in the Middle Ages.’”


Cheney’s skilled oratory shuttles effortlessly from Kafka’s Penal Colony across the sea to Orwellian territory, where words have at least two opposing meanings. With great rhetorical acuity, Cheney accuses his opponents of abusing language and resorting to euphemism, while Cheney himself uses the biggest whopper of them all in his “enhanced” terminology for torture.

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell discusses the linguistic distortions of his day, and he describes how political language is tortured to make “lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” Cheney, in his May 21 speech, seems to take up Orwell’s cause against the abuse of language, but the result is something quite different. See Murray's essay for a full discussion.

Also see the University of Massachusetts Press book, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective by Bruce T. Murray.

Religious Liberty in America is available at numerous university libraries and the University of Massachusetts Press.

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