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Terrorism and the English Language

Columnist Katha Pollit, in the October 8 issue of The Nation, wrote: "My teenaged daughter, who goes to Stuyvesant High School only blocks from the World Trade Center, thinks we should fly an American flag out our window. Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war."

Notwithstanding the turkey-shoot irony of a righteous progressive prohibiting dissent in her own home, one can easily understand blinkered sermonizing regarding the flag - from both the left and the right. The terrorist attacks violently upended everyone's sense of reason, at least initially; so there's little wonder why, in our attempts to right it, we clutch first at cruder objects of communication like Old Glory. But it is now imperative that we set about recalibrating the sleeker, more precise tools of our reasoning: our written language. It serves the urgent purpose of searchlight, surgeon and soldier all at once. Or at least it would - if it weren't flung to flap in the wind by some of the very people who claim to be its champions.

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver decreed that "patriotism threatens free speech with death. It is infuriated by thoughtful hesitation, constructive criticism of our leaders and pleas for peace ...Whom are we calling terrorists here?" Stephen Jukes, chief of international news agency Reuters, explains how "we all know that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, and Reuters upholds the principle that we do not use the word terrorist." And a column in London's Guardian wondered, "How was 1776 any different from September 11, in principle? Britain was the legitimate owner of North America until freedom fighters (or should that be terrorists?) threw us out."

Unlike Pollitt's gaffe, these comments do not attempt to reference an ambiguous iconic symbol; they concern the definition of a specific term. Or perhaps more accurately, they all evince a disturbingly benighted understanding of a specific term. A terrorist is a political murderer who premeditates, specifically targets, and carries out violence against civilians to punctuate demands or foment panic. The death-stench of that Manhattan charnel pit should have viscerally clarified the word's meaning, but instead the acrid smoke seems to have obscured it from California to Europe.

Kingsolver misappropriates "patriotism" as a synonym for "nationalism" in order to leverage her absurd supposition that patriotic people are indistinguishable from terrorists. In rejecting the latter term, Jukes not only prioritizes ass-covering over journalistic accuracy (he later admitted that the policy was designed to "protect" Reuters field correspondents), he also presumes that his own craven philosophy hampers "all" of us. (Certainly not Salman Rushdie, whose intimate familiarity with the dangers of calling a spade a spade did not prevent him from doing so in The Washington Post.) The Guardian columnist should brush up on his history, as it will remind him that our founding fathers announced their "principle" to the Crown with a signed document, not an anonymous massacre of 6,000 Londoners in Parliament Square.

"Terrorism" - when used in expository, nonfigurative discourse - defines a specific concept which the vast majority of English speakers and writers used and referenced consistently before September 11, just like many others. Suppose, for example, I point to a cyclist and call his activity "driving." In a coarse sense I am somewhat correct - both the cyclist and the driver operate machines with wheels to get around - but even a five-year-old would wrinkle his nose at the sloppiness of such usage. So why is it that journalists and intellectuals, those members of society generally upheld to exhibit the most discriminating command of language, are suddenly floundering in a morass of semantic inaccuracy? The answer is that they choose to, either out of intellectual cowardice or ideological sympathy. A more pressing question would be: what are the consequences?

In his seminal essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell submitted a grave thesis to answer that very question. "It is clear," he wrote, "that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes ... it becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts ... in our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible." To Orwell, bad writing is more than just an academic nuisance or intellectual handicap - it is nothing less than an adjunct to brainwashing, tyranny and genocide. In 1946, what Orwell called "the intelligentsia" were busy rationalizing the Communist purges of Stalin; now their heirs dissemble over the terror campaigns of Islamic extremists.

In Orwell's 1984, Big Brother collapses vast families of subtly differentiated concepts into the quacking syllables of Newspeak. No such extremities are yet on our immediate horizon. But we can recognize that the first step in killing a word, and therefore a thought, is to broaden its expression over so many concepts that it becomes meaningless. When intellectuals and journalists abuse the word "terrorism" without respect to its specific meaning, they also smother the concepts of "murder," "criticism," "freedom," "courage," "innocence" and any other tangent idea. By 1946 Orwell had already written epitaphs for the words "democracy," "socialism," "patriotism," and "justice,"and bitterly observed that "the word 'fascism' has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable.'" The word "terrorism" is dying a similarly ignoble death. When that skulking scourge has no more name and thus becomes as invisible to our minds as it already is to our eyes, the Taliban and their ilk will sleep well. I wonder if Stephen Jukes will?

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