Monday, April 23, 2007

Linguistic Scrutiny

One of the reasons I like to read Niemann Watchdog is for the essays that unpack certain phrases that everyone (particularly in the press) seems to be using and drill down to what those phrases are actually saying. This morning Dan Froomkin took on two of these exercises of usage: the phrase "War on Terror" and the question of how to describe what we are doing in Iraq. Froomkin does not really resolve the second exercise, so that set me to thinking about how I have been approaching that problem.
I discovered that the last time I needed this kind of descriptive language in one of my own posts, I just used the noun "mess" (enclosed in scare quotes). This emerged from the context of that post, in which I was referring (yet again) to the Neustadt-May thinking-in-time approach to dealing with crisis situations. As a quick review, what they prescribe is that any crisis situation should be addressed by asking two fundamental questions, which are (in my words, not theirs):
  1. How did we get into this mess?
  2. If we take this particular action, what will the consequences be?
They wrote up a collection of case studies, all concerning Presidential decision-making, in their book Thinking in Time. My guess is that it would be hard to find a copy in any of the current executive-level offices!

In his first exercise Froomkin focuses on the extent to which the use of the phrase "War on Terror" has created a culture of fear. This is an important point, even if Froomkin is far from the first to have made it; but the point should be pursued further to recognize that it is not the only fear-inducing phrase. "Homeland Security" has strong connotations of fear even before we get to their color-coding system (which, of course, is coding levels of fear). I still support Gore Vidal's assertion that the acts of 9/11 were criminal, rather than military. The proper response is better law enforcement; but that kind of language lacks the marketing power of "war on terror." Sure, it would be easier to use clearer language to describe what we should be doing; but using such language will make it easier to see how badly we have been doing it!
However, if it is clarity we seek, we would probably do better to look to the European Union, rather than our own government, at least on the basis of the following news just reported by Reuters:
The European Union agreed on Monday to inform groups and people why they are put on its list of terrorist organisations, a move aimed at avoiding decisions being overturned in court.
This seems to be based on the premise that being better informed is far more advantageous than being kept in fear. It will be interesting to follow the impact of this decision on EU efforts to control terrorist acts.

No comments: