Language & Terrorism

Language and Terrorism:

A scholarly article at The Chronicle of Higher Educationmakes the case for calling people names. Well, not just any people:

The reasons fall into five categories.

The first rationale amounts to political correctness, however odd that may ring in regard to terrorism, the most political of all matters on the government's plate. It's the reflexive unwillingness of officials to express moral and political beliefs for fear they'll insult and offend others. Remember Fowler's classic definition of euphemism: "mild or vague or periphrastic expression as a substitute for blunt precision or disagreeable truth."

These days officials win praise for such evasion. In London, Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil-rights group Liberty, observed of Gordon Brown that he "has passed the first test of his administration. He has not played politics with the terror threat and has treated this weekend's events as an operational rather than a political matter."

But if the admirable part of political correctness is that one shouldn't utter unsupportable, reactionary ethnic, gender, or other generalizations, that principle is misapplied in the case of terrorists, who are picked out for condemnation by their acts alone. Aren't "bastards," "scum," and so on precisely the right terms for people who seek to maim and kill presumably innocent others to make a political point?

A second reason for muted language is the notion that not using emotional, judgmental words means one is acting more rationally and efficiently. Here, too, current clichés of proper official behavior encourage word-mincing. New Home Secretary Jacqui Smith won applause for the "calmness and dignity" of her remarks to Parliament after the failed car bombings.

That backslap makes little sense in regard to commentary on terrorists. Are all morally judgmental words "emotive"? Few would think that calling terrorists "wrong" or "immoral" counts as emotive, though branding them "evil" might slip into that category nowadays, on the ground that President Bush gave "evil" a bad name. The step to "cowardly" or "barbarian" strikes far more people as worrisome verbal escalation. What, though, is the logical inference between emotionally strong language by responsible people and irrational action? We don't expect President Bush to make weepy, emotionally upset decisions because he emerges teary-eyed from meetings with American families who've lost loved ones in Iraq. We don't expect religious figures or ordinary people who deliver strong, moving remarks at funerals to make irrational decisions immediately afterward. Why infer such things with politicians?

A third reason, construable as a corollary of the second, is that citizens don't want to see their leaders act emotionally. Hitler's histrionics and Khrushchev's shoe-pounding remain quintessential Bigfoot examples of the political equation that emotional language signals demagoguery. On a different scale, famous moments in American political history, such as Sen. Edward Muskie's alleged crying over attacks on his wife, reinforced a perceived equation between emotion and weakness.

Here one would like to see a poll. Politicians might be surprised by the result.

A fourth reason for morally neutral language about terrorism is fear that emotional, insulting language might make terrorists angrier and more dangerous. An old anecdote about former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir figures on the other side. Once, at an Israeli cabinet meeting, someone reportedly warned that the action contemplated would anger the Palestinians. Shamir supposedly replied, "Are they going to hate us more?" — implying that enemies of Israel had already hit their max in that department, freeing Israel from such consequentialist calculations. A similar logic appears more applicable to terrorists than fear of inciting them to greater ferocity. That aside, fear that insulting or strongly judging terrorists will cause greater terrorism appears to contradict the logic behind emotionless security talk itself — that violence is prevented by tough tactical measures rather than rhetoric. So long as rigorous tactics remain in place during rhetorical upgradings, things should not get worse.

Finally, there is the reason, intuited even by nonexperts on rhetoric, that repeating such language weakens its power. Listening to President Bush denounce terrorists every day as cowards would grow old fast, this thinking goes, as did hearing the mantra that "terrorists hate our freedom." Here, one might nonetheless ask, for what would we be trying to hold language's power in reserve? For another 9/11? A dirty bomb exploded in an American city? Is anything short of slaughtering thousands at a time insufficient for moral outrage? Nonuse of morally strong language arguably saps it of power more than repeated use, making it seem quaint and archaic.
It's interesting that we live in a country in which we often hear our political opponents and fellow Americans called terrible names, but terrorists are normally named "insurgents" or "fighters" or even "activists." The use of the term "terrorist" without scare quotes by an organization like Reuters is cause for note.

A long time ago I remember there was a push from some circles to call Arab terrorists mufsidoon, meaning "evildoer" in Arabic. You see the term now and then, but it never caught on. People adopted "jihadist" instead, falling into just the trap warned against: letting the terrorist be labeled as one doing religious work, performing a religious duty.

The Chronicle suggests that we shouldn't be quite so civilized as mufsidoon anyway: "Young Muslims would have to get used to hearing jihadist heroes described as savages, scum, and uncivilized losers, along with the reasons why. It would intellectually force them, far more than they are forced today, to choose between two visions of the world."

Savages. I like it.

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