Folks, It’s Torture

gordian-knotThere probably is such a thing a scrutinizing a public speaker’s language too carefully—but not on this blog. Our radar screen lit up this past week as the Twittersphere ricocheted responses to President Obama’s August 1 one-liner: “We tortured some folks.”

The We here are the agents of the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11. And while the words tortured and folks have received most of the attention, the rhetorical use of the first-person plural performs an interesting sleight of hand. Initially, the President appears to acknowledge that the responsibility for the torture he’s referring to rests with “us,” presumably including himself and the people around him, if not Americans in general. But only a couple of sentences later, he introduces we to put the shoe on a different foot:

When we look back, it’s important to remember how afraid people were after the twin towers fell … and it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had.

Here, we are the people living now, looking back; people might refer to our earlier selves, or might refer to some other group of people for whom we can feel a kind of sympathy; folks clearly does not include us, but sets apart the group responsible for the torture he began by assigning to us. So Obama has effectively disarmed accusations that he sets himself apart from ordinary, fallible administrations by introducing we, but manages nonetheless to make it clear in a few sentences that the real we stand quite apart from those folks.

Who, he says, tortured. Tortured is the word that set off the first set of blinking lights in cyberspace. It’s the word that’s been euphemized into enhanced interrogation, special methods of questioning, stress positions, refined interrogation techniques. It’s spawned an entire field of academic inquiry; Amazon now lists 270 books in print in the category of Human Rights Law using Torture as part of the title. President Obama clearly knew that a newly declassified report about the black sites, special renditions, and CIA techniques being used post-9/11 would raise the specter of torture yet again. He nestled the verb not only between We and some folks but also within a cushion of statements reinforcing how frightened, confused, and tough we were and needed to be. But he did say it. And while some may point out that Obama has referred to the use of torture on the part of the U.S. before, to my ear, We tortured carries more rhetorical weight than we compromised by using torture to interrogate.

Bear with me: we’re at some, but I don’t think we can discuss some apart from its inclusion in the expression some folks. The expression has been on a meteoric rise, according to Google N grams, since about 1980, when Ronald Reagan came into office. Though complaints about overdone folksiness surfaced mostly during the second Bush administration and continued into Obama’s presidency, American politicians seem to have been appealing to the folks in their audiences for many decades. Richard Nixon, for instance, no cuddle bear, reached out to the folks for understanding in his famous Checkers speech. But folks, or its original form, folk, evokes very different connotations depending on whether we’re apostrophizing; wondering what the simple folk do; having dinner with our folks; sympathizing with the tough job those folks have; or noting that some folks have different ideas from ours. As HuffPost books editor Zoë Triska observes, “Folks is one of the friendliest ways you can say people,” but it’s also one of the most undifferentiated; both folk and folks are plural, yielding no individuals, whereas within people one can usually find individual persons.

So when Obama confirms that we tortured some folks, there’s not only the same sense of the ludicrous that attended Bush’s “those folks who committed this act” or Obama’s “automatic weapons that kill folks,” but also a certain dismissal contained within the admission. Some folks doesn’t amount to much, and whatever it does amount to isn’t commensurate with individual human beings. It’s the strangeness of that juxtaposition, I think—the elusive, indefinite quality of folks, diminished by its adjective, butting up against the bald truth of torture and the slippery identity of we—that makes President Obama’s four-word statement a Gordian knot of rhetoric.

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