Felicia Muftic – It’s about how you say it
January 11, 2010
I am declaring war on semantics abuse. When I was at Northwestern University in the late 1950s, the buzz around the speech school folks was a whole new science called “semantics”. I ran to Webster’s to find the definition: “The branch of linguistic science which deals with the meanings of words.” But, it is more than an academic subject; misuse of language can have concrete consequences.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney started a semantics war recently when he criticized President Barack Obama for not using the exact terminology, “War on Terror,” he himself had used when he engineered the most failed foreign policy in American history. Because Obama did not use that specific term, Cheney painted him as weak on terror. Republican party leaders grabbed the insinuation and ran with it.
President Bush and Cheney could have used some semantics science when they inadvertently declared war on all of the Muslim world instead of war on the specific perpetrators. You could excuse it as a technical language mistake, except for the misunderstanding it caused in the Muslim world. The Bush administration compounded the problem when it characterized the war as a Crusade, naming certain Muslim countries as part of the Axis of Evil.
Those are fightin’ words in the Middle East, which managed to further anger any potential moderate Muslim anywhere, including allies and their “streets” we need on our side: Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Yemen and Indonesia.
The phrase “war on terror” has its own semantic irony. Terror is “a person or thing that causes great fear.” You could say the Bush administration was a terror in itself because it ran the first six years of its administration ginning up fear of attack like another 9/11. It used this to rationalize many actions: Abuse of our own citizens’ civil liberties, thumbing noses at the rule of law, running up the national debt with an unfunded military, launching the first pre-emptive strike against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and violating every accepted norm of international behavior, including the Geneva conventions and abuse of prisoners in their control. Yellow, orange, red was overused so much, Americans just became immune.
President Obama has been truer to the definition of the threat we are under. The threat is from the “terrorists.” A terrorist is (Webster’s again): “A person who favors or practices terrorism” and terrorism is “the policy of using actions inspiring terror as a method of ruling or conducting political opposition.”
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Obama has been consistent, from his campaign speeches and his inaugural address to his Nobel acceptance speech, in using the term “terrorists” and sometimes “extremists” (as he did in the Jan. 5 press conference), even in Oslo calling them evil, which at least defines correctly with whom we are at war. It is not all of Islam. He has made that clear: It is Al Qaeda and their ilk.
This helps encourage Muslim moderates to stand up to terrorist, including the parents of the five young men from Falls Church, Va. who journeyed to Pakistan to fight with Al Qaeda or the banker father of the Christmas Day underwear bomber. We never had that degree of cooperation before and as a parent, I can imagine the agony those parents must have gone through in blowing the whistle on their own. Maybe, too, they also no longer feared the US would torture their young under the guise of some bogus definition.
We are going to need that help from moderate Muslims in the future. We need to encourage them to teach the next generation of 20-something young men that jihad is not a fight against latter day Crusaders. Instead, it is a personal struggle that is spiritual and self-improving, the more traditional view of Islam. Otherwise, the next generation will continue to heed the siren song of Al Qaeda’s internet recruiters and we all are in for a very long haul.
Action always speaks louder than words. Obama took time to find the screw ups, reforming the turf protecting incompetence of our own intelligence agencies. He fights terrorists on their turf with the advice of Gates, Brennan, Petraeus, McChrystal and 30,000 additional troops, while Republicans prattle on demanding Obama abuse semantics exactly the way they did when they were in power.
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