Nicholas F. Benton
Dwarfing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s struggle with linguistics in an attempt to cloak the reality of civil war in Iraq, the current monstrous obscenity taking place in Lebanon now raises questions about the use of this word, “terrorist.” We can’t help, also, but to wonder how active, if covert, is U.S. military support by use of satellites and air cover, for Israel’s offensive.
Why is Hezbollah called a “terrorist organization,” rather than a military organization engaged in “irregular warfare?”
If the term, “terrorist,” has to do with wanton strikes on civilian populations designed to both wreak havoc and to instill a psychology of terror among civilians, then who is, and who is not, a terrorist in the current Mideast crisis? Hezbollah kidnaps two Israelis, and what have we seen as the retaliation? Thousands of innocent women and children killed, maimed or rendered homeless.
The media and our political leaders, both, throw the word, “terrorist,” around without any second thoughts. It is a new word that did not really exist until the U.S. decided its main enemy in the world was not the recently-dissolved Soviet Union, but this more nebulous thing called “global terrorism.”
It is a blanket, indiscriminate term that could substituted for by “evil doers,” but generally identifies enemies of U.S. military, economic and other offensives around the world. But they’re not called “enemies,” they’re called “terrorists,” and it’s because these enemies have no option but to resort, faced by the military might of the U.S. and its alliances, to engage in “irregular” or “guerilla” warfare methods.
There was a great change in the global perception of events in Iraq when the media could no longer ignore the fact that U.S. forces there faced a popular “insurgency,” and not just a handful of criminals or renegade remnants of Hussein’s forces, as the Bush administration earlier sought to assert.
Now, Rumsfeld wants to change the perception of the reality in Iraq by changing the words, again. It’s is not civil war, it is random “death squads” engaging in “sectarian violence” that are causing the havoc over there, he insists.
With no help from the media, which should be where critical analysis of the art of “wordsmithing” is put to the ultimate test, Internet discourse is beginning to grasp the nefarious ways in which careful choice of words can skew political debates.
For example, neo-conservatives have run circles around their opponents by these techniques for the last two decades, doing things like redefining a “woman’s right to choose” with phrases such as “culture of death.” Such phrases get carted out to radio talk show hosts who are able to determine which play better than others during their daily rants, and forward the more effective ones back up the political pecking order.
George Lakoff, in his popular paperback, “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” has been among the first to call out the neo-cons for their duplicitous use of linguistics to gain a political edge. There is no doubt that while the neo-cons have been better at it, others haven’t or won’t try to play the same games to their own advantage.
The matter remains that while some words (like “fire!” yelled in a crowded theatre) evoke more emotions and reaction than others, it is ultimately the job of the media to help an informed public discern which words are appropriate or not as applied to a particular issue or problem.
Right now, there seem to be no questions being asked in the U.S., at least, about who are the terrorists in the Middle East and who are those only seeking to defend their homeland.
But in light of the numbers of innocent women and children — from a Scriptural perspective, they can also be considered widows and orphans — being blown to smithereens in Lebanon, any assumptions about one or another party holding the moral high ground, linguistically or otherwise, have to be reconsidered.
As for whether or not this current conflict is a proxy war on behalf of the U.S., questions remain about the degree of U.S. logistical support for the Israeli offensive. It has not only been the stubborn U.S. resistance to calls for a ceasefire, but it is also the role of U.S. satellites in Israel’s smart bomb and other military targeting activity and of U.S. air cover for Israeli air strikes that are raising suspicions. Is it true that Israel could not be continuing its offensive without not just passive, but active, if covert, U.S. military support?
The media cannot stand back at arms length from this crisis and rehearse the old rhetoric, without among other things, calling the role of the U.S. into question as fundamental to what triggered and what is sustaining the terrible events there.