Eric Blair, the writer who would become known as George Orwell, famously observed that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” In 1946, Orwell was commenting on “the avoidance of reality” that had seemed to grip the post-war democracies, citing a battery of pressing social ills. He went on:
“When one is making out one’s weekly budget, two and two invariably make four. Politics, on the other hand, is a sort of sub-atomic or non-Euclidean world where it is quite easy for the part to be greater than the whole or for two objects to be in the same place simultaneously. Hence the contradictions and absurdities…”
In the case of George Floyd, to see what is in front of our nose could hardly appear more obvious. A videotape so ghastly that it defies words has been played in front of the country thousands of times, a living document of the snuffing out of human life. Americans who call from walks of life as diverse as state senators to MVP athletes to former Marine officers have described the “murder,” “death” or “killing” of an unarmed man who was not resisting arrest—including Barack Obama, who took to Medium this week to condemn, as so many have, “the killing of George Floyd.” What could be more obvious?
And yet, apparently, it’s not. Because Floyd was not murdered. He suffered a fate that is one of the few that could rightly be described as worse than murder. He was tortured, slowly, and to death.
In case there is any doubt to this point, we can consult the standard literature on the political use of torture, where slow and partial asphyxiation tactics have been a staple since forever. The United Nations Convention against Torture defines these tactics as:
. . . any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as . . . punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed . . . or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by . . . a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.
Suffocation techniques have long been understood to fall within this policy. According the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (emphasis added): “Some of the most common methods of physical torture include beating, electric shocks, stretching, submersion, suffocation, burns, rape and sexual assault.”
Human Rights Watch has found that “[n]ear asphyxiation by suffocation is an increasingly common method of torture,” often favored by its practitioners because it leaves no visible marks on the victim. According to the organization’s 2011 report, suffocation became so widely used in Latin America that its Spanish slang term, “submarino,” is now synonymous with torture. Forms include the “wet” submarino—involving water—and the “dry” variety, which can occlude breathing with the use of plastic bags, dust and cement, or “pressure or ligature around the neck.”
Of course, there’s a simpler proof: squeeze your hands firmly around your neck, and see if you can last longer than ten seconds. Try it. Even knowing the perpetrator’s hands are your own, your body’s natural response of panic and dread is overwhelming. Now try to imagine that ordeal lasting more than eight minutes.
As my colleague Andrew Beaujon has reported, NPR has advised its staff to report that Floyd “died” or was “allegedly killed.” One local NPR affiliate has bucked that requirement, dropping the adverb and simply calling it “a killing.” Following the Associated Press Stylebook for homicide, murder, and manslaughter, several other outlets have adopted terms that fall largely in this range. The Atlantic refers to the incident as “a police killing,” while the New York Times references “Floyd’s death” in “the killing.”
Only one person, to my knowledge, has consistently referred to Floyd’s treatment from the beginning as torture: Benjamin Crump, the lawyer for the Floyd family. “We cannot cooperate with torture,” Crump told the audience at Floyd’s memorial service. He earlier told CNN, “I saw a man being tortured to death.”
It begs the question: How different would the national discourse be if the case in Minneapolis were referred to as “the torturing-to-death of George Floyd”?
It’s been six years since “torture” was the watchword of the national dialogue, in 2014. That was the year when President Obama addressed the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA interrogation techniques, more appropriately labeled as torture, which the President so much conceded when he strangely acknowledged, “We tortured some folks.” And central to that report was the almost pedestrian use of waterboarding—a tactic that is definitionally understood as a suffocation technique.
It seems strangely befitting, then, to watch the wave of state counteractions that have militarized the streets of Washington: a Joint Chiefs chairman patrolling in fatigues; armed guards forming a federal paramilitary patrol, alarmingly unidentified and still anonymous; military helicopters using anti-insurgent techniques; and opening fire with tear-gas and kinetic projectiles on peaceful protestors for a presidential photo op. Each is of a piece with the militarization of American civic life, a continuum that should be understood to include the torture Floyd suffered for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis.
In one of his most cited observations, Orwell wrote that political language is calibrated “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” I was reminded of this when the DC National Guard responded to the outrage of a helicopter being used as an offensive street tactic—by announcing an investigation “into the actions of our rotary aviation assets.” As the national discussion continues into summer, we will hear more about “police brutality,” “use of force,” and “unarmed killings”—words that convey outrage, certainly, but are very far from capturing the bleaker truth of what happened to Floyd. The “killing” of Floyd misdirects away from his torture the same way that Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s mention of the “battlespace” misdirects away from plain facts, which sit in front of our nose: There is shooting in the streets.
Over the next few months, as the country deploys more words, we should be thinking about which ones. “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” Orwell went on. “One cannot change this all in a moment. But one can at least change one’s own habits.”