If We Don't Call Them Names, the Terrorists Win
By CARLIN ROMANO
After the terrorist near misses in London and Glasgow, British officials did the expected. They raised their nation's threat-assessment level. They weighed the balance between civil liberties and new, tougher security measures. They pondered the latest fold in the elaborate tapestry before them, the possibility of a privileged jihadist cell tucked into the country's National Health Service.
Finally, they produced the usual morally namby-pamby, logistics-heavy rhetoric about getting to the bottom of each case. They sounded deadly serious about investigating the attempts, deadly uninterested in morally judging what happened.
"We are on the trail," a senior Whitehall official immediately told The Sunday Times of London, and so, as subsequent arrests indicated, they were. London Mayor Ken Livingstone urged city residents to remain vigilant. Lord Carlile of Berriew, a top British terrorism official, upped the ante by admonishing Londoners to be "forever vigilant." New Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared, "We will not yield, we will not be intimidated, and we will not allow anyone to undermine our British way of life."
Brown obviously hadn't tried as mere citizen to connect internationally through Heathrow lately, a feat that requires the very un-British task of squeezing all carry-on items allowed elsewhere into one bag (really, one bag) or losing them to Heathrow security officers, who must be scoring quite a take on duty-free purchases.
A similar rhetorical fiasco took place after the conclusion of the 114-day kidnapping of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston. No government ministers denounced the successful Gaza kidnappers, who reportedly won release of some gunmen in the deal, as bastards, lowlife, cowards, scum. Official rhetoric after terrorist acts has become ethically neutral, merely strategic in tone and content.
You might think shrewd politicians would notice something wrong with this picture. After all, the last major national politician to insult those who violate civilized norms in expressing political anger — former French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who denounced Muslim rioters in France as "scum" for their car burnings and mayhem — won election as president of France despite predictions that he'd committed political suicide.
Yet the vast majority of statesmen believe in purely operational talk after terrorist acts. On July 4, Franco Frattini, the EU's top justice official, announced a wide array of new antiterrorist measures, including an EU-wide passenger-data-recording system, and criminalization of bomb-making instructions on the Internet. "We will find a better way to discourage and detect terrorists," Frattini said.
W hy does such a better way not include a call for sterner moral judgment, forcefully expressed?
Should Ayman al-Zawahri, deputy head of Al Qaeda, be the only "leader" quoted making moral judgments — that Arab regimes are "corrupt" — in a week of terrorist incidents? Why do media parrot this moral irresponsibility, as in The Boston Globe's post-Glasgow editorial that the terrorist threat can "be countered by means of sound intelligence, conventional police work, legal adaptations that do not create a law-free zone, and leadership that distinguishes law-abiding communities from the crazed Islamist ideologues that prey upon them"?
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.
All key reasons for avoiding stern moral judgments and insults toward terrorists, then, prove less than compelling. What might we argue in favor of calling terrorists names?
Let's mention just one key goal: the education of the world's Muslim youth. Instead of hearing moral praise and encouragement for terrorism from jihadists, which then gets mixed in their minds with the nonjudgmental, tactical talk of Western officials and media, they'd have to absorb a steady stream of insults of terrorists' intelligence, morality, decency, and reasoning. 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.
We should not minimize the thirst for respect among terrorists and their potential sympathizers. When we treat terrorists only as tactical foes, as though we're too jaded for moral talk, we raise the self-respect of terrorists and their appeal to young people. Christopher Hitchens's surprise best seller, God Is Not Great, employs wry understatement in its title, then sarcastically drills home why "not being great" is the least of God's problems and sins. Perhaps officials around the free world, under a portfolio titled "Terrorism Is Not Great," could start stockpiling verbal weapons that penetrate the enemy more sharply than, "They're dangerous and we must fight them."
Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle and literary critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.
It is morally repugnant and against the WORD of GOD to accept evil on any level.
Carlin does not realize this, but it is the Wests' GODLESSNESS that has allowed this
mealy mouthed dhimmi pathetoric to be our politicians "diplomatic normal"
REBELLION TO TYRANTS IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD
~ The original proposal for the seal of the United States ....
Around a picture of Moses parting the sea.
Israel Matzav: Why we should make moral judgments about terrorism