The word “folks” has a plasticity about it. “Folks” can refer to a group as small as one’s parents (“I’m going home to visit the folks”), the people in one’s community, or the “salt of the earth” inhabitants of a region or a country (the way Bill O’Reilly annoyingly uses the term). This plasticity is illustrated by the definition of “folksinger” that a local radio personality used in the early 1960s — someone who is only good enough to sing for his folks.
President Obama loves to say “folks” and apparently has for years. His Harvard Law Review colleagues brilliantly ridiculed him for it.
Why does the word appeal so much to Obama? Perhaps because it has no fixed meaning. Or maybe because it enables him — arrogant and standoffish though he is — to sound folksy. Perhaps too, he likes the fact that the word can be used to drain the individuality out of people. For collectivists, this has appeal.
It’s unusual to use the word folks to apply, transnationally, to the people of the world. Although the word does drain much of what makes us individuals, “folk” implies some commonality besides just being human. “We Are The World” is not a folk song.
Even so, it doesn’t shock the conscience to refer to people in other countries as “folks.” Foreigners are people too.
For me, however, it did shock the conscience to hear Obama say last week that “we tortured some folks.” He was referring to the use of certain harsh interrogation techniques on some of the terrorists we captured after 9/11 in an effort to obtain information that might prevent more attacks on the United States, our allies, and our interests.
By using the word, Obama drained the terrorists of what made them unique — and what made them the subject of harsh interrogation — namely, their desire to kill and terrorize. Even for a “one-worlder” like Obama, “folks” should not include those who reject the norms of civilization that bind people into some form of a collective suitable for that term.
The juxtaposition of the words “folks” and “torture” was also striking. To describe the subjects of U.S. interrogation, Obama used the most bland, least conclusory word he could come up with. To describe what was inflicted on them, he used the most emotionally charged, most conclusory word available.
Whatever Obama’s other shortcomings — and they turn out to be legion — he is a master at choosing his words. By saying “we tortured some folks,” Obama, it seems, decided to cast his country in the worst possible light.
He turned the terrorists into “just folks” through a choice of words that ignores the biographical context that landed them in our custody and the rationale for interrogating them at all. And he cast what we did to these “folks” in the worst possible light, using a term that typically encompasses far more severe interrogation techniques than the “folks” at Gitmo endured (assuming for the sake of this discussion that what they endured is encompassed by “torture” at all).
Obama did provide some context for the interrogations he deems torture. “You know, it is important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had,” Obama allowed. “And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.”
Actually we should assume that all of them were working hard under enormous pressure. But note, again, the use — twice — of the “f” word. “Folks, Obama would have it, were torturing “folks.”
Regardless of whether some CIA interrogators went too far, the American president should be able to find the words to differentiate the interrogators from the terrorists. If he wants to give the terrorists the benefit of the doubt and call them “suspected terrorists,” that’s acceptable.
But a president who sees the interrogators and the terrorists as just a collection of “folks” isn’t fit to protect this country from the ongoing threat of terrorism.
JOHN adds: It is also noteworthy that “torture” is a term of art under US law. If what was done to terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was torture, then it was illegal. This is why the Bush administration went to the Department of Justice to get clarification of the legal concept of torture, which led to the famous “torture memos.” I think those memos correctly interpreted the law in concluding that the enhanced interrogation techniques contemplated by the CIA did not constitute torture.
As I have said many times, I think that waterboarding, the only such technique that could plausibly be considered torture, is in fact a humane alternative to torture. It takes only a few minutes and does zero physical harm, which is why Khalid Sheikh Mohammed himself suggested that we should waterboard “all the brothers.” If anything that scares the subject of an interrogation or makes him uncomfortable is torture, then we can forget about ever getting information–which may well be a matter of life and death–from any terrorist.
In subscribing to the view that the CIA’s interrogation of a handful of high-level terrorists (a grand total of three were waterboarded) was illegal and wrong, Obama probably thought he was only selling out his immediate predecessor, and maybe the CIA. In fact, he was selling out his country, just as he did with the various apologies that he extended shortly after his inauguration. Like his wife Michelle, Barack Obama appears to think that the first thing America did that was worthy of pride was elect him president.
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