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A First Rate Concern


This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, October 31, 2007.

It’s annoying at my age when not only do I have to admit I don’t know everything – certainly never an issue in my early years – I have to look up the definition of words and terms I use rather often. This is usually safely known only to me, but it is embarrassing. I once, while sitting in a half way house serving a jail sentence, realized I didn’t know exactly what “horsepower” was when I was talking about cars. I used it all the time and had no clue. I looked it up. The energy required to lift 550 pounds one foot off the floor, as it happens. Or so I recall. I’m not looking it up again.

Primarily because I just had the term ‘first rate’ recalibrated, because apparently third rate referred to a type of ship in a book I was reading, and that rating was supposed to convey knowledge for the action then described that was lost on me. I once knew all this, coming from a family involved with whaling ships. I can tell the difference between a fore course sail and a spanker, and can accurately name any sail in a square-rigged ship or bark. I had forgotten that the Royal Navy had three ratings for its warships, first to third. It was annoying. The first rates were the main war ships with three decks of guns, the second rates were the frigates with two, and the third rates were everything else, often with just one deck or weapons.

Now, we use the term to mean excellent or superior, because everything on a first rate ship was supposed to be of the best quality. But the ships, while powerful, were slow and cumbersome, and often had their lower deck gun ports closed and they could not be used unless the sea was smooth. So, very expensive and valuable, surprisingly fragile, and not all that useful except in limited circumstances. That’s not excellent. What are we saying when we call someone a first-rate quarterback? A second rate ship could often out run what it could not outgun, and you could build three of them at the expense of one first rate. Which was the more excellent choice? Third rates could often outrun everyone unless the seas were too high, and the bigger second rates could catch and kill them. Applying those standards, a second rate quarterback might be the first rate choice.

We use a lot of words and phrases derived from circumstances that no longer apply, much like medieval painters put the Holy Family in then-contemporary clothing and European style buildings. Justice Holmes once wrote: A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanging, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in colour and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used. Indeed it can. Let’s take the word “torture.”

This used to be simple. Torture is defined by the generally accepted International Law as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity." It can also be inflicted for the sadistic gratification of the torturer, which would make it a sex crime. That definition seems clear.

But, gee. The man President Bush selected to replace the worthy Alberto Gonzales - who himself replaced baritone patriot John Ashcroft - is Michael Mukasey who was again before the committee today, and Mike still hasn't looked it up. It’s a word we use all the time, we know what it means, right? I know the feeling, Mike, I do. But I realized a disconnect when Mukasey wouldn’t admit waterboarding is torture. And yet, the Washington Post points out that waterboarding "has been prosecuted as torture in U.S. military courts since the Spanish-American War."

What is it? "[W]aterboarding generally involves strapping a prisoner to a board, covering his face or mouth with a cloth, and pouring water over his face to create the sensation of drowning." But not really drowning, right? They’re just fooled, right? Naw. The lungs fill with water. It’s “slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration. … When done right it is controlled death." Or so says the Small Wars Journal Blog by Malcolm Nance, who knows of what he speaks.

We ought to straighten this out, before Al Qaeda videos our guys being waterboarded and not one nation on earth steps forward to condemn it because we do it as well. Don’t you think, Senator McCain?

And what about sleep deprivation, keeping someone awake for four days or so, is that really torture? Noted Country Club Tough Guy Rudy Giuliani clears that up. Quote: "They talk about sleep deprivation [as torture]. I mean, on that theory, I'm getting tortured running for president of the United States. That's plain silly. That's silly."

So many words need to be kept defined and crystal like. Like torture and genocide. Presidential. Ethical. American. That’d be first rate.