Obama’s war on the language of terror

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Charles Krauthammer has a characteristically excellent column on the weirdness — and mischief — of this Administration’s awkwardly truncated lexicon of terror — “jihadists,” “Islamism,” and “Islamic terrorism” no longer exist.  (And of course, terms such as “Islamo-fascism” are consigned to virtual profanity.)  Bizarrely, the terms are no longer permitted.

I agree with everything Krauthammer says is wrong about such semantic tip-toeing.  But he doesn’t purport to explain how it came about in the first place.  I confess to bewilderment.  I cannot see any rational foreign or domestic policy materially advanced by eliminating certain descriptive words that are commonly used — including by Muslims, and including by the very enemy we purport to be fighting.

As Krauthammer notes, when Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square attacker, pleaded guilty, he explained, “one has to understand where I’m coming from . . . I consider myself a mujahid, a Muslim soldier.”

“Mujahid” simply means “one who wages jihad, or holy war,” i.e., a jihadist.

So we’re not talking about language that has come to mean something denigrating to the referenced group — like “Negro” evolved to become an unacceptable general descriptive within the African-American community.  We’re talking about language that the referenced group itself freely embraces.

The matter is even more bewildering with respect to the relatively neutral descriptive, “Islamic terrorism.”  Granted, this Administration is allergic to calling anything “terrorism,” as opposed to some species of crime.  But terrorism clearly exists.  It is a distinct and identifiable military and cultural phenomenon.  It targets innocent civilians, typically indiscriminately (i.e., the object is simply to kill, to terrorize, regardless whether children, for example, are incidental, or even primary, victims).  It follows that terrorism can be perpetrated by different groups, and adjectives serve the useful purpose of distinguishing these different groups (lest we confuse Islamic terrorism with, say, Tibetan terrorism).

So if “terrorism” is okay — and that word has not yet been banished — what could possibly be wrong with “Islamic terrorism”?

Maybe this Administration is mindful that virtually all 21st century terrorism has been committed in the name of Allah.  Maybe this Administration understands that most Americans, based upon an indisputably rational inductive process, have come to associate “terrorism” — the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians — primarily with a certain radical interpretation of Islam.  And so maybe this Administration wishes to dissociate “terrorism” and “Islam.”

I get that.  After all, terrorism could be committed by non-Islamists.  It hasn’t this century, but it could.  And in our outreach to Muslim countries, our effort to woo Muslim populations to American good will, it may not help that most Americans associate “terrorism” primarily with a certain radical interpretation of Islam.  So (I surmise) if we strive, by linguistic manipulation, to wean Americans away from the association of “terrorism” and “Islamism,” then we can make goodwill headway in Muslim countries.

Putting aside that President Obama has not in fact made goodwill headway in Muslim countries, I understand and agree with the impulse to avoid sullying Islam, painting it across the board with the brush of its radical Islamists.  But this Administration’s language game is the quintessential head in the sand.  It is as though European appeasers in the 1930s sought to avoid calling Nazis what they were, for fear of unnecessary offense to ordinary Germans (who elected Hitler).  Oh wait, that’s exactly what happened.

Our hyper-solicitude for Muslim sensitivities actually works against ordinary Muslim courage.  There is no shortage of Muslim courage — witness the uprising in Iran last year, and this Administration’s embarrassingly tepid response.  If even our leaders are unwilling to call the oppression of Islamofascism what it is, then courageous Muslims are hopeless heroes, and there will be fewer and fewer of them.  In short, we’re manifesting contempt for the best actual human beings who are Muslims in our misdirected determination to be sensitive to abstract Muslims.

Moreover, semantic manipulation typically backfires, especially in democracies, where the state does not control all, or even many, information sources.  If a government of the people refuses to call a thing by the name its people fairly use — like “Islamic terrorism” — then the people come to distrust their government.  What is the government hiding?  What is the government’s real agenda?  These questions arise only because the government in the first instance distrusts the intelligence of its own people and resolves to uplift them by stripping their language of common phrases.

This Administration’s premise — that one way to fight Islamic terrorists is to go silent on the very phrase “Islamic terrorists” lest we offend Muslims — contradicts one of the greatest principles of American constitutional jurisprudence.

In his 1927 Whitney v. California opinion, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “if there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

In other words, the remedy is not to strip our language of common phrases we use to describe our actual enemies, but to use the common phrases appropriately and to resolve to commend Muslim courage wherever it arises to resist oppression, to celebrate the many beauties of Muslim culture, and to lend American support to the peaceful aspirations of millions of Muslims.

In short, don’t enforce a shorter dictionary; use more speech to achieve our twin aims of battling Islamic terrorism and declaring our solidarity with courageous and peace-loving Muslims everywhere.

Kendrick Macdowell is a lawyer and writer in Washington DC.  He was Vice President and General Counsel at the National Association of Theatre Owners.  Prior to joining NATO, he served as General Counsel to Senator Peter Fitzgerald and specialized in judiciary and financial market issues.  Prior to the Senate, he was a partner at the law firm of Patton Boggs LLP.