The Sanctity of Words

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality website on May 14, 2007.
Last week the FBI uncovered a plot involving a handful of roofers and pizza deliverers from suburban Philadelphia who, according to the allegations, were planning an attack on the United States Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey.

If the government’s case against the would-be militants sticks, it will be a fine example of what actually keeps Americans safe in the post-nine eleven world. It was not the invasion and occupation of Iraq but the sleuthing of gumshoes in the Garden State which thwarted the evil machinations of this small, violent anti-American cell. Score one for the good guys.

I’m glad to see anyone planning a credible attack on the United States behind bars, but in the days since the arrest, I’ve been troubled by the lack of verbal precision in the American discourse around what happened and who was arrested.

For example, just about every voice in the media is talking about the group of men arrested in the plot as if they were terrorists, but if terrorism is defined as attacks upon civilian targets—and terrorism invariably is so defined—then an attack on a military target cannot be considered terrorism and the thwarted attackers cannot be terrorists. They are delusional, foolhardy militants who thought they might ambush the United States Army and get away with it, but they are not terrorists.

This is an important distinction, because policy makers in Washington have sought to garner support for the war in Iraq by casting the enemy as terrorists. There is a lot of terrorism in Iraq these days, and some terrorists also may join in resisting the American military presence in Iraq, but the American Armed Forces in Iraq are not civilian targets. When Americans in uniform are attacked it is warfare and not terrorism. Consequently, we are not “fighting the terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them here.” We are fighting militants most of whom wouldn’t dare follow us home.

What’s more troubling about the way folks are talking about the would-be attack upon Fort Dix is how meaningless words are being used to talk about Islam, the religion common to all of the suspects in the case. In the media, I have yet to encounter a description of the cell members that didn’t use words like “extremist” and “fanatic” to describe the men’s religious convictions.

But what does it mean to be a religious extremist? Was not Mother Theresa extremely religious? I once knew a guy who thought being an Evangelical Protestant wasn’t hard core enough, so he changed his name from Brad to Josiah, he grew a beard and became an Eastern Orthodox priest. He was a fanatic but in a gentle way.

This is not a mere word game. Many of the leading candidates for next year’s Presidential primaries use words like “Jihadist” and “Islamist” in policy statements about National Security. They promise to defend America from the kind of “extremists” and “fanatics” implicated in the plot to ambush Fort Dix. These are words without firm definitions and without proper application within Islam itself. It is worrisome to consider the possibility that American policies might rest on such flimsy vocabulary.

Nearly twenty years ago, in the dewy-eyed innocence of my Evangelical youth, I went to visit a friend of mine who greeted me at the door of his apartment with a Bible in one hand and a dictionary in the other. We were students together at a Christian college in Southern California, and our plan was to spend the evening together illicitly drinking beer, but before we could get down to the serious business of adding lime to Corona, my friend, who was an English and philosophy double-major had an observation: “in order for this to be inspired and infallible,” he said, holding up his well-worn NIV, “this dictionary also must be inspired and infallible.”

I won’t say that I drank fewer beers that night, but the comment started me thinking, and even from the sober distance of mature adulthood, I’m convinced that he was correct. When words lose their meaning nothing is sacred, and nothing is safe.

4 thoughts on “The Sanctity of Words

  1. Vocabulary is not sacrosanct; words mean what we more or less agree to take them to mean at any given period, and in any given era. No one of us makes the decision (although you can argue that a pope or a president has a mighty bully pulpit from which to pontificate). In this time of instant and mass media, the media largely makes the decisions for us by creating its shorthand. Internet bloggers do the same.

    And so we have a war on “terror,” although terror, strictly speaking, is a tactic. In fact, the enemy is Islam, or at least elements within Islam that command a broad following. As it happens, the suspects in the Fort Dix matter come out ahead in the deal: branded domestic terrorists, they will be given civil trials with all the legal protections so entailed. They are in fact and under international law, irregulars (not part of any defineable army, and not in uniform.) As such, they rightly can be hanged about 30 minutes after the military tribunal concludes. If any of them are US citizens, I expect they also could face treason and sedition charges, both of which can carry the death penalty.

    But the media will call them “terrorists” and “militants”, and they likely all will catch a break thereby. And the mass media, including mass entertainment entities — and increasingly, the Internet — will continue to set the vocabulary standard, for good or ill.

  2. But isn’t that exactly what Ben is pointing out? It would seem that he is implying that how we choose to define our words in any period in any culture naturally is specific and cannot be claimed to be universal. And if words aren’t universal (which they never were, of couse) then how can we claim to understand the universal truths of things like the Bible or the Koran? They are all interpreted through the lens of our own perspective, our own experiences and biases and needs and values. We necessarily eisegize…. we read our own culture and values systems into the things that we interpret, making the Bible into a justification for this or that in our time now.
    Ben, I wanted to say that this is an interesting article. While I think that the language problems do not take away from the issues we face, they do create a blanket under which we can condemn individuals by using words drenched with symbolism in order to “other” them.

  3. Sarah, I’m not disagreeing with Ben.

    I would submit, though, that in recent decades a wide range of words and terms have been co-opted and given a symbolism far from the original meanings.

    Until very recent years, “gay” meant light-hearted.

    Even worse is the case for “justice”, a term and concept that political zealots have rendered nearly meaningless. Today I read a quote from a woman who heads “Californians for Justice,” an organization opposed to the state’s high school exit exam requirement. If we take her organization’s name seriously, are we then to expect that those 12th-graders who can’t pass a test that measures 8th-grade knowledge are somehow victims of injustice?

    (Note to non-Californians and others unfamiliar with the test: it measures 8th-grade knowledge. It is multiple choice. And the minimum passing score is 60 percent. My grandson or any other five-year-old taking the test might reasonably be expected to hit 40 to 50 percent through random guessing.)

  4. Ben–

    As always, thanks for your observations. This essay reminds me of the days–35 years ago!–when I taught English 1A as a graduate student. When I would return papers with low grades and question marks festooning the margins because of imprecise writing, the students would always say, “But you know what I meant!” I had to reply that I could guess what they meant, but that they had actually said something quite different. They were doing it unintentionally; the Administration and its cronies are doing it intentionally to deceive the public, and many in the media are doing it carelessly, adopting and abetting deception just out of sloppiness. (Maybe they are in on the “plot,” but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.) The meanings of words do change–a dip into the King James Version of the Bible will quickly show that–but at any time, words have commonly accepted meanings and ought to be used carefully to express those meanings. Or we may choose to try to accelerate change; for instance, by pushing for inclusive language in liturgy. But we should take special care not to use words deceptively or manipulatively or sloppily. Maybe the last word on words could come from Humpty Dumpty, who told Alice, “Words mean exactly what I want them to mean, nothing more and nothing less.”

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