Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A rose by any other name

Norm of Normblog has a prolific mind, and a fabulous network of moles working for him from "deep within the bowels of Britain's security apparatus". He gets first hand reports of secretive discussions even as they are being discussed. The latest scoop involves the latest development in the war on terror, which counter-terrorism officials claim is an offensive misnomer:

They say the term "war on terror" will no longer be heard from ministers. Instead, they will use less emotive language, emphasising the criminal nature of the plots and conspiracies. The government in future, they add, will talk of a "struggle" against extremist ideology, rather than a "battle".

(Aside: The substitution of "struggle" for "war" in itself suspiciously follows the logic of Islamist apologists, when they interpret the term "Jihad". As we all heard numerous times, Jihad does not mean a holy war at all, no, not at all. It is just a term that suggests a personal struggle, a quest, an exertion, towards cultivating a better self and universal good..)

Back to Norm's exclusive, here is an excerpt from the minutes of the committee that was set up to explore the possible name that would be given to the committee that would be in charge of transferring the war on terror to some other linguistic venue, less injurious to the feelings of Jihadists who do not tend to regard themselves as terrorists but rather as Allah's dutiful servants carrying out His explicit wishes:

First business is to settle on the name of our committee.

'The Struggle Against Terror Committee'?

No, no, Trev, won't do at all; 'Struggle' still contains an adversarial element which might offend any number of people.

Hmmm... 'The Campaign Against Terror Committee'?

That's better but still worries me for some reason. Any thoughts, Clarice?

Yes, 'Campaign' is too energetic and, followed by 'Against', it does conjure up the thought of, well, struggle or warfare.

I know... What about 'Committee for the Idea that Terror May Be Unhelpful'?

Excellent suggestion!

If I may, Sir Rupert...

Please, David, do go ahead.

Two points. First, I thought it was already decided that we were replacing 'Terror' by 'Extremist Ideology'. Second, 'Idea that etc' retains a somewhat authoritarian ring since it doesn't problematize its own constructed and relative nature. Might I suggest, in light of these two considerations, 'Committee for the Debatable Point of View that Extremist Ideology May Be Unhelpful'

Lovely. We're making brilliant progress here - but I'm sure all members of the committee can now see that 'Extremist Ideology' will have to go as well. It undermines what 'Debatable Point of View' brings out so nicely. To adapt a well-known saying: 'One person's extremist ideology is another person's programme of social liberation.' Clarice?

'Committee for the Debatable Point of View that What Some See as a Programme of Social Liberation May...' Uhh... No... 'May Be Unhelpful' is too abrasive. Got it! 'Committee for the Debatable Point of View that What Some See as a Programme of Social Liberation is Itself Also Debatable'.

Marvellous. Well done, all of us! We now have, for the name of our committe, a real instrument of public harmony.

Excuse me, Sir Rupert...

Yes, Rocky.

Haven't we slightly lost sight of the idea that there's something we need to... well, stop from happening.

Oh, put a sock in it, Rocky. That's typical of your macho posturing and lack of feeling for the realities of a world of diverse viewpoints. Meeting closed.

Joking aside, this seems just another attempt to call something well known and emotionally-laden by something less evocative. It is done all the time, substituting a euphemism for too graphic reality; "collateral damage" for civilian death toll in war, for example.

Here is another example, this time historical:

In the Nuremberg Trials, Translation played a crucial role in communication, due to the large variety of nations represented in the proceedings. Skilled and professional translators were employed to try and help the judges get as close to the truth as possible. In spite of this, when the Nazi Propaganda Minister Goering was questioned, he managed quite successfully to cast doubts as to the way certain terms, quoted from official Nazi documents, were translated from the German. In seeking to mitigate the damage done to his defense by those documents, he kept arguing that many quotes were mistranslated, and that the correct translation would account for a different story than the one unfolded during the trials.

When cross-examination turned to the persecution of the Jewish population, the prosecution presented as evidence a short letter from Goering to Heydrich in which "the final solution to the Jewish problem" was the main issue. Goering challenged the translation, claiming that the correct term should have stated "the total solution" to the Jewish problem, and not the "final solution" as it came to be known in contemporary parlance. Goering, fully aware of the heavily emotional charge that had accrued to the term "final solution”, wanted to lessen the burden by suggesting that another term be used instead. A euphemistic variation such as “the total solution” would have divested the concept of its immediate connotations, blunting the sharpness of the allusion and thus maybe softening its impact, to Goering's advantage in court.

However, it is my opinion that some phenomena cannot be so easily manipulated into oblivion. In the context of historical evidence, any term selected to describe a genocide would have eventually assumed the same meaning.

All of which is to say that, in my opinion, "terror" by any other name, will still be terror.

And what is terror?

André Glucksmann, the French philosopher, provides the clearest definition for what constitutes terrorism, in a recent essay:

"A better definition of terrorism is a deliberate attack by armed men on unarmed civilians. Terrorism is aggression against civilians as civilians, inevitably taken by surprise and defenseless. Whether the hostage-takers and killers of innocents are in uniform or not, or what kind of weapons they use—whether bombs or blades—does not change anything; neither does the fact that they may appeal to sublime ideals. The only thing that counts is the intention to wipe out random victims. The systematic resort to the car bomb, to suicide attacks, randomly killing as many passersby as possible, defines a specific style of engagement."

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