Hyperbole in Wartime is Immoral
Los Angeles Daily News, October 28, 2001
On the afternoon of Sept. 11, you may recall, commentators and politicians had a difficult time finding the words to describe the awful carnage, and so spent the day comparing it to Pearl Harbor.
After a few days, when the horrible reality could begin to be processed, the analogy was discarded. But the usage of comparison and even equivalence, especially while debating the anti-terrorist war, has only increased since then, from all sides of every political spectrum.
After the Afghanistan campaign began, novelist Barbara Kingsolver wrote: "We've answered one terrorist act with another."
When "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher was criticized for
calling long-range U.S. bombing "cowardly," syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington accused ABC sponsors and executives of "using the Taliban's trademark weapon -- the stifling of dissent."
After left-wing scholar Noam Chomsky compared Sept. 11 to the U.S.
bombing of Sudan in 1998, right-wing columnist David Horowitz called him the "pathological ayatollah of anti-American hate."
These ill-tempered analogies are more than just inaccurate (unless, that is, Islamic fundamentalists really do run network TV). In a time of war, when truth and accuracy mean life and death, these phrases of equivalence are simply immoral.
When you call the bombing campaign "terrorism," despite the
overwhelming evidence that the United States and Britain are trying hard to avoid civilian casualties, the next logical step is to declare both sides equally wrong, call for a cease-fire, and address the illegitimate aims of the mass murderers.
In other words, appease evil, and agree with the evil-doers. That's immoral.
When you compare a marginalized American academic to a revolutionary fundamentalist dictator, you are trivializing wickedness, humanizing the inhumane. Regardless of intent, this gives aid to the enemies of freedom. How bad could the Taliban be, really, if they use the same methods as television advertisers?
It is natural to grasp for metaphors or historical similarities in times of sudden crisis and tragedy. Are we headed for another Gulf War, or Vietnam? Will Sept. 11 be as galvanizing as the 1940-41 German Blitz of England, or as disintegrative as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914?
But it is another thing entirely to make casual comparisons of events too singularly grave to ever be duplicated. There was only one Holocaust, and as we've seen in the cases of Rwanda and Armenia, the word "genocide" is often considered too dire to use even on deserving slaughter.
Because of our many decades of good fortune, we've grown sloppy with the language, using words like "war" to describe the government's actions to reduce drug use and cancer, or "Bill of Rights" to describe new regulatory packages. The sports pages are still filled with militaristic metaphors, despite the drastically increased use of the suffix "so to speak."
Suddenly, much of that now seems inappropriate. The other day, there was a guy outside my local supermarket signing petitions condemning George W. Bush's alleged post-Sept. 11 "coup d'etat," and as I glared at him, it struck me: This just isn't funny anymore.
We are not a country that has coups, nor do 92 percent approval ratings indicate a "totalitarian" mind-set, as I've heard several times in recent days. Rhetorical hyperbole might be amusing sport during peacetime, but it's unconscionable while American troops are fighting a dangerous war.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was right, though he was
absolutely the wrong man to say it: Americans do "need to watch what they say."
Taking pains to get your terminology and argument straight doesn't just prevent you from causing harm, it helps you create potentially awesome good.
Martin Luther King, in his letter from Birmingham jail, said that real protest can't begin until you gather the "facts" and clean them from your own bias. George Orwell argued that free speech spoken with grave regard for the truth was a main reason why fascism would never win the day in Britain.
And Vaclav Havel, while shuttling back and forth between prison, had the nerve and foresight to predict that he and others could topple a totalitarian regime simply by "living in truth" and "calling things by their proper names."
We face a long and hellishly complicated campaign that will last years. There is a terrorist network to catch, a destroyed nation to rebuild, friendships (like with Saudi Arabia) to reconsider, new military fronts (like Iraq) to ponder opening.
Debate and support on the home front will be more crucial than we can currently imagine. The least we can do is begin calling things by their proper names.
Matt Welch is a free-lance writer living in Los Angeles.