Waterboarding is serious business…

Not a jokey metaphor

This week’s On The Media opened with an excellent segment on waterboarding. The debate over the term’s meaning became white-hot after Michael Mukasey’s refused to call a spade a spade and acknowledge waterboarding as torture during his Senate hearings to become Attorney General. Copy desks and style mavens also had to wrestle with this key definitional question—which isn’t made any clearer by the fact that several different procedures producing similar effects go by the same name.

If you listen to the piece (which I recommend), you’ll hear Malcolm Nance, a former Army trainer and waterboarding expert, complain that its creeping usage as a metaphor debases debate over its actual usage.

With that in mind, take a look at this passage from Howard Fineman’s most recent Newsweek column:

A campaign is an extension of the candidate, reflecting his or her personality. Bill Clinton’s in 1992 was a brilliant combination of soap opera and floating crap game. George W. Bush’s cold-blooded machine had no compunction about waterboarding Sen. John McCain in 2000 or swift-boating Sen. John Kerry four years later.

Right. That’s the same Senator McCain who was repeatedly beaten while spending five and half years as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war, which also happens to be the same Senator McCain who’s repeatedly denounced waterboarding as antithetical to American values. So, Fineman, next time, instead of cramming in a hot button term without considering its true meaning, just crack open the ol’ thesaurus.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.