The Importance of Words

Alan Gilbert, professor at the University of Denver, examines the words that will never be used by the mainstream media against American acts of aggression (ie. crimes). He then reminds us how Thucydides so eloquently argued that the meaning of words drastically changes during war time:

10 years of now infamous torture by the United States at Guantanamo, the horror at least of indefinite detention continues, and the criminals responsible are subject to no hearing or investigation. Of course, they, the former President, the Vice President, the Pentagon secretary, and my former student, the well-traveled Secretary of State, inter alia, can no longer go abroad. See here, here and here. Under Reagan and then the 1994 Congress, the United States has signed and ratified the Convention against Torture which bars torture in any circumstance. It calls for prosecution of torturers in the country responsible. See here. Obama has thus made himself the accomplice of Bush and the others by not pursuing such prosecutions as well as the torture, stopped under protest after 9 months, of Bradley Manning.

Witness against Torture has acted courageously against Guantanamo. Matt Daloisio sent me a newsletter about the heroic protests of people, including hunger strikes, in Washington against the continuing – still, 10 years later – crimes at Guantanamo, the prisoners detained, often mistakenly, and in any case, illegally, indefinitely – like the man in the iron mask with no future. But of course, Guantanamo creates a future of justified hatred for the United States; it nurtures enmity. Now, Arab Spring has blown a great breath of fresh air through movements in the Middle East (rendered Al-Qaida ineffectual) and inspired international protests – particularly the Occupy movements – which need to learn that torture and aggression, leading crimes of the 1% – must be stopped.

The New York Times has led the way in 1984 style misuse of words. For instance, water-boarding has been recognized as torture since the Inquisition and has long been barred under international treaties – the Geneva Conventions (styled “quaint” by the war criminal Alberto Gonzalez – see here) and the Convention against Torture – and American law (Article 6, section 2 of the Constitution, the Supremacy Clause, makes treaties signed by the United States the highest law of the land). When others commit torture – Iran, for example – the Times has no difficulty with ordinary English and names it. But when the US government does it, the Times’ editor (now embarrassingly poking his head out as a columnist) encourages circumlocutions – “enhanced” or “harsh” or “brutal interrogations”…

What removed the crime? Cheney breathed on the Times’ s editorship. Or to put it differently, he reminded the Times of its slogan “all the news that’s fit to print” – news that would name the American government in committing war crimes (see Richard Falk and Howard Friel, The Record of the Paper, which points out that in 50 years of American aggressions, for example in Vietnam, the Times does not allow the word – identifying a crime barred by Article 2 section 4 of the UN charter and which the Allied prosecutors led by later American Supreme Court Justice Robert L. Jackson, had indicted, tried and executed Nazi and Tokyo war criminals for – to be used in relation to American aggressions).

In addition to Matt’s reports, which are very moving (and thus do not find their way into the Times), Iranian scientists, civilians, are being murdered (very likely by the increasingly police state Israeli government). When governments strike at civilians, with large and explosive displays (Masoud Ali Mohammedi was a fifty year old college teacher whose car was blown up), the message to all is clear. Though Israel is probably responsible, it could be the United States – and Santorum waxed on at one of the Republican debates explicitly about how the US government should murder Iranian scientists. The US, under cleverer leaders, including Obama, tries to keep its murders of civilians with drones, for example, in a haze of denial. But none of it is secret (and the Democratic think-tank “experts” and pundits here like Roger Cohen , the neo-neo cons, still baying for drones and saying, murder of innocents by drone is superior to invasion, are refusing to look a) at the crime and b) at the fact that every drone that falls on civilians makes, justifiably, new enemies). In Pakistan or Yemen or Somalia, the innocents and their relatives all know who sent the drones.

The world cries out…

Santorum’s criminal fecklessness compounds George W. Bush’s avowal of water-boarding last year…

The American elite becomes more and more crass, does not so much need phony or imitation words any longer, reaches for, gets high on criminality. “I am a torturer” says Bush brashly, “I did it to protect…you” [torture is repulsive and does the opposite]. Bush no longer blinks an eye… (though at night, it comes to him perhaps and he will not travel to Europe – he never liked travel anyway…).

Similarly, the murder of civilians is for the New York Times no longer a great crime of war (see Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars). The US, under Obama, is supposedly not already engaged in covert operations, including murders, in Iran, or not looking the other way or secretly cooperating in, Israeli murders of civilians…

If the US, through bombing, commits a more full-scale aggression against Iran, it will reverse all the slow movement toward getting out of its occupations and new reliance on the largely secret Joint Special Operations Command (the new center of American military/intelligence policy, the folks who justly murdered Bin Laden, the mass murderer, but in their 12 operations a night – at least – murder a large number of civilians and innocents. And then there are the drones…)

Even in the Bin Laden case, the US government was afraid of a trial and daylight, for its effects in American politics – the desperate fear of Republicans and Democrats that “criminals” might “be” on American soil (they do not hear their own shrill cowardice), the lack of confidence in a serious judicial and prison system in contrast to the trials of accused terrorists in Madrid and the actions of civilized countries, the reason why the special infamy of Guantanamo continues after 10 years and Obama’s promise, and finally, the possibility that Bin Laden, at trial, might have highlighted important and embarrassing matters, like his long cooperation with American crimes (the US set him to overthrow the pro-Soviet Afghan regime by terror).

If the US or Israel attacks Iran, the possibility of world war in the Middle East, with in the midterm, use of nuclear arms, becomes increasingly likely, the way back to a frail peace, darkened…

But the New York Times, as Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan relate below, will not name terror against civilians – the murder of Iranian scientists – as terror (since neither Israel nor the United States is at war with Iran, these incidents stand out for their horror). And today comes news of the assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshana, a 32 year old nuclear scientist. The Times‘ frontpage headline “Bomb kills scientist” and no whisper of terror in the article. Who are the “terrorists”?

It was said long ago by Thucydides, describing the Athens’ led butchery of aristocrats taken out of sanctuary in temples in Corcyra, that words change their meaning in war. What is rash becomes good counsel (Santorum, as well as Romney’s speech in New Hampshire two nights ago – “the US will have the strongest military which will prevent anyone from attacking the US” – talk about idle promises – and in a depression), what is sensible is ignored. The shifts in these words now about torture and terror is public corruption heading toward an end which Thucydides once named. It needs to be stopped.

Here is Thucydides on the dynamic in Corcyra:

“Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime. The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with a generous confidence. Revenge also was held of more account than self-preservation. Oaths of reconciliation, being only proffered on either side to meet an immediate difficulty, only held good so long as no other weapon was at hand; but when opportunity offered, he who first ventured to seize it and to take his enemy off his guard, thought this perfidious vengeance sweeter than an open one, since, considerations of safety apart, success by treachery won him the palm of superior intelligence. Indeed it is generally the case that men are readier to call rogues clever than simpletons honest, and are as ashamed of being the second as they are proud of being the first. The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention. The leaders in the cities, each provided with the fairest professions, on the one side with the cry of political equality of the people, on the other of a moderate aristocracy, sought prizes for themselves in those public interests which they pretended to cherish, and, recoiling from no means in their struggles for ascendancy engaged in the direst excesses; in their acts of vengeance they went to even greater lengths, not stopping at what justice or the good of the state demanded, but making the party caprice of the moment their only standard, and invoking with equal readiness the condemnation of an unjust verdict or the authority of the strong arm to glut the animosities of the hour. Thus religion was in honour with neither party; but the use of fair phrases to arrive at guilty ends was in high reputation. Meanwhile the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two, either for not joining in the quarrel, or because envy would not suffer them to escape.”

(for more of Thucydides’ account, see here).

Athens, the leading democracy of the time, got hungrier and hungrier, waged increasingly crazy and criminal wars, and was ultimately defeated in Syracuse (Sicily) as the US has been defeated in Vietnam and Iraq. (see W. Robert Connor, Thucydides, and my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 4). The internal consequences of American war – depression, the war complex, a vast prison/probation system, and the increasing misuse of words – are all of a piece. This decadence can be reversed or stopped to a large extent, with a new movement toward green productivity; that was the promise of Obama, the new hope in his campaign. That hope is now with the Occupy movement and other courageous resisters like Witness against Torture to pressure this regime of the 1% for decency, for the rule of law, and not to destroy us (and the world) through ever expanding war and militarism. We should all work to further it…

Check out his whole post, complete with reflection and remarks on the Gitmo rally from Michael Foley and Frida Berrigan, over at his blog. 

This entry was posted in American Military Culture, Barack Obama, Death, End of the Empire, George Bush, The New Peace Movement and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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