A War of Words

By Eugene Robinson (THE WASHINGTON POST, 12/09/06):

There was a time, not so long ago, when no one ever spoke of an American "homeland." During World War II there was a home front, and of course there has always been a heartland between the two heartless coasts, but no one thought of our big-shouldered cities, traffic-choked suburbs, purple mountains' majesties and amber waves of grain as anything called a homeland.

The United States was always a place for people who had left their homelands behind, a polyglot, rainbow-colored nation whose defining characteristics were vitality, mobility, dynamism and the restless urge to push toward the next frontier. But now we inhabit an official homeland, with an official Department of Homeland Security to protect it.

"Homeland" is one of the burdens left to us by the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001. Words are all we have to give shape to reality, and because we had no words for what happened five years ago -- by definition, language falls short of the unimaginable -- a new lexicon had to be developed. I am convinced that much of this new language, by accident or design, has the effect of clouding our view of our enemies and ourselves. We need to begin choosing our words more carefully, and we need to discard the ones that do not serve us well.

The word homeland is a vivid but relatively inconsequential example -- less a distortion than an infelicitous choice that makes us sound as if we had quaint harvest rituals and a colorful national costume. It strikes an odd note, with its vague connotations of ethnic solidarity and ancient nationalism, and it gives off more than a whiff of us-vs.-them. This nation does have enemies from whom we need vigilant protection, but something more like "domestic security" would have done just fine, with less baggage.

At the other end of the scale, by far the most fateful post-Sept. 11 coinage is "war on terrorism." The phrase that has come to define our era is entirely suspect, except perhaps the "on."

President Bush wasted little time in declaring that the Sept. 11 attacks were acts of war that could be met only with a military response -- a war on terrorism. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq certainly fit the rubric of "war," but the most effective ongoing action against al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups has been a worldwide exercise in law enforcement -- surveillance, arrests, detentions, interrogations, prosecutions.

Witness the recent arrests of would-be airline bombers in London, or the fact that so many of the high-value terror suspects held until recently in secret CIA prisons were captured in Pakistan, an ostensible ally. We should call this police work what it is, although that might make it harder to ignore such principles as habeas corpus and due process.

As for the rest of the phrase, terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy. All terrorists are alike in only one regard -- they practice terrorism. Stubbornly refusing to acknowledge important distinctions among them strikes me as insanely self-defeating.

George W. Bush certainly is no great orator, but the White House does understand how language can be used to shape reality. So when the National Security Agency's unprecedented program of electronic eavesdropping was revealed, it was quickly dubbed a "terrorist surveillance program" -- as if somehow, magically, the NSA's computers could deduce who was unquestionably a terrorist without ever happening to overhear a single conversation involving someone who is innocent.

Then there's the matter of what is and is not a "civil war." By laying down this yardstick to judge the war in Iraq, the White House has focused its critics' attention on an irrelevancy. What difference does it make whether unrelenting bloody chaos meets the dictionary definition of a civil war? No difference at all to the next Iraqi civilian killed, or the next American soldier.

People whom it's inconvenient to call criminal suspects or prisoners of war are instead "detainees," as if they've been forced to stay an hour after school. Torture, as spelled out in international agreements, is merely an "alternative" method of questioning. And the steady climb in the death toll in Iraq is "real progress."

On Sunday, Dick Cheney said the reason there have been no attacks in five years is that the administration has done a good job on "homeland security, in terms of the terrorist surveillance program we've put in place, in terms of the financial tracking we put in place, and because of our detainee policy."

There was a time, not so long ago, when people would have scratched their heads and wondered what on earth the vice president was talking about.