Torture in law, literature and the media
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Posted May 23, 2009

Essay sections

I. Kafka

II. Orwell

Kafka's story in the original German, "In der Strafkolonie."

Also see Web Sage section on torture.

Press release


Update 2

Update 3

From Kafkaesque to Orwellian

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

By Bruce T. Murray

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.”

Cheney and President Barack Obama recently gave “dueling speeches” on torture and national security, with Obama stating that “brutal methods like waterboarding undermine the rule of law,” while Cheney asserted that such methods are necessary to save American lives and are thus consistent with American values.

While Cheney’s views are clearly at odds with the prevailing political winds, his words harmonize with Kafka’s unnamed character, “the Officer,” in “The Penal Colony.” The Officer, speaking to another unnamed character, “the Traveler,” makes an impassioned defense of his former boss and his methods – particularly his use of torture and execution to uphold justice and order in the colony. A unique and intricate torture-execution device, “the Apparatus,” possesses the power of writing and emerges as a kind of third character in the story.

Here are some parallel excerpts from Cheney’s May 21, 2009 speech to the American Enterprise Institute and Kafka’s short story, published in 1919:


Cheney: “The [Obama] administration seems to pride itself on searching for some kind of middle ground in policies addressing terrorism. They may take comfort in hearing disagreement from opposite ends of the spectrum. If liberals are unhappy about some decisions, and conservatives are unhappy about other decisions, then it may seem to them that the President is on the path of sensible compromise. But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed. … There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance.”


The Officer: “I stood at the side of our previous Commandant in all matters of punishment, and I also know the most about the apparatus. The basic principle I use for my decisions is this: Guilt is always beyond a doubt. Other courts could not follow this principle, for they are made up of many heads and, in addition, have even higher courts above them. But that is not the case here, or at least it was not that way with the previous Commandant. It’s true the New Commandant has already shown a desire to get mixed up in my court, but I’ve succeeded so far in fending him off. And I’ll continue to be successful.”

Cheney: “I would advise the [Obama] administration to think very carefully about the course ahead. All the zeal that has been directed at interrogations is utterly misplaced. And staying on that path will only lead our government further away from its duty to protect the American people.”

The Officer: “For the new Commandant, everything serves only as a pretext to fight against the old arrangements.”

Cheney: “The [Obama] administration has found that it’s easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo. But it’s tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interests of justice and America’s national security.”

The Officer: “You didn’t know the Old Commandant and his way of thinking. You are biased in your European way of seeing things. Perhaps you are fundamentally opposed to the death penalty in general and to this kind of mechanical style of execution in particular … And now I’m asking you: Should such a life’s work come to nothing because of this Commandant and the women influencing him? Should people let that happen?”

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. I can no longer think about a more extensive organization of the process—I’m using all my powers to maintain what there is at present.”

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: “Behind the overwrought reaction to enhanced interrogations is a broader misconception about the threats that still face our country.”

The Officer: “Naturally, the new Commandant will completely misunderstand the issue and interpret it in his own way.”

Cheney: “Some are even demanding that those who recommended and approved the interrogations be prosecuted, in effect treating political disagreements as a punishable offense, and political opponents as criminals. It’s hard to imagine a worse precedent, filled with more possibilities for trouble and abuse, than to have an incoming administration criminalize the policy decisions of its predecessors.”

The Officer: “People are already preparing something against my judicial proceedings. Discussions are already taking place in the new Commandant’s headquarters, to which I am not invited. He, of course, understands how to turn such meetings into a spectacle. A gallery has been built, which is always full of spectators. After various trivial and ridiculous agenda items designed only for the spectators, the judicial process also comes up for discussion.”

Cheney: “For all the partisan anger that still lingers, our administration will stand up well in history – not despite our actions after 9/11, but because of them. And when I think about all that was to come during our administration and afterward – the recriminations, the second-guessing, the charges of ‘hubris’ – my mind always goes back to that moment.”

The Officer: “You should have seen the executions in earlier days! No discordant note disturbed the work of the machine. Many people did not even watch [the executions], but lay down with closed eyes in the sand. They all knew: now justice was being carried out.”


Cheney’s spirited defense of “enhanced interrogation methods” is astonishing, among many reasons, for its ring of clarity and reason. Had Cheney entered Kafka’s story and relieved the Officer of his duty, it is quite possible he could have convinced the Traveler of the necessity of the Apparatus and the virtues of the old Commandant.


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.” In his May 21 speech, Cheney seems to take up Orwell’s cause against the abuse of language, but the result is something quite different, as excerpted below:

cheney Cheney: “Behind the overwrought reaction to enhanced interrogations is a broader misconception about the threats that still face our country. You can sense the problem in the emergence of euphemisms that strive to put an imaginary distance between the American people and the terrorist enemy. Apparently using the term ‘war’ where terrorists are concerned is starting to feel a bit dated. So henceforth we’re advised by the administration to think of the fight against terrorists as, quote, ‘overseas contingency operations.’ In the event of another terrorist attack on America, the Homeland Security Department assures us it will be ready for this, quote, ‘man-made disaster’ – never mind that the whole Department was created for the purpose of protecting Americans from terrorist attack.”

Orwell: “Political language has [come] to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

Cheney:“In the category of euphemism, the prizewinning entry would be a recent editorial in a familiar newspaper that referred to terrorists we’ve captured as, quote, ‘abducted.’ Here we have ruthless enemies of this country, stopped in their tracks by brave operatives in the service of America, and a major editorial page makes them sound like they were kidnap victims, picked up at random on their way to the movies.

Orwell: “In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.”

Cheney: “It’s one thing to adopt the euphemisms that suggest we’re no longer engaged in a war. These are just words, and in the end it’s the policies that matter most. You don’t want to call them ‘enemy combatants?’ Fine. Call them what you want – just don’t bring them into the United States. Tired of calling it a war? Use any term you prefer. Just remember it is a serious step to begin unraveling some of the very policies that have kept our people safe since 9/11.”

Orwell: “A newly-invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e.g., iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”

Cheney: “And when you hear that there are no more, quote, ‘enemy combatants,’ as there were back in the days of that scary war on terror, at first that sounds like progress. The only problem is that the phrase is gone, but the same assortment of killers and would-be mass murderers are still there. And finding some less judgmental or more pleasant-sounding name for terrorists doesn’t change what they are – or what they would do if we let them loose.”

Orwell: “The English language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish.”

Cheney: “The United States of America was a good country before 9/11, just as we are today. List all the things that make us a force for good in the world – for liberty, for human rights, for the rational, peaceful resolution of differences – and what you end up with is a list of the reasons why the terrorists hate America.”

Orwell: “Many political words are similarly abused: The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. … Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”

Cheney: “Critics of our policies are given to lecturing on the theme of being consistent with American values. But no moral value held dear by the American people obliges public servants ever to sacrifice innocent lives to spare a captured terrorist from unpleasant things. And when an entire population is targeted by a terror network, nothing is more consistent with American values than to stop them.”

Orwell: “Politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”

Cheney: “Those are the basic facts on enhanced interrogations. And to call this a program of torture is to libel the dedicated professionals who have saved American lives, and to cast terrorists and murderers as innocent victims. What’s more, to completely rule out enhanced interrogation methods in the future is unwise in the extreme. It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness, and would make the American people less safe.”

Orwell: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. … Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from conservatives to anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”