Euphemisms and Power Over Thought
Power over language is power over thought, and the government has a certain power over all our thoughts in the way it wields its power over our language, via the mainstream media. The war on terror and its subsequent fear-stoking (e.g. the useless alert levels which could invoke national martial law in response to a regional terrorist attack) have brought with them a number of bothersome euphemisms concocted by the government to blur legal boundaries:
First there is the indefinite and secret detention offshore (a great example of rule-bending and boundary-blurring), where the detainees are called "unlawful combatants" rather than prisoners of war or criminals. Those latter traditional titles bring with them certain rules and standards governing humane treatment, while the newly invoked term offers none of the basic protections democratic nations have come to expect from their government.
Then there is the detainment of people secretly and indefinitely (notice the pattern) here in the states, where we call them "material witnesses" so that they don't have to be charged with a crime or receive the protection that we grant those charged with a crime. This is despite the fact that the original material witness statutes were intended to detain someone long enough to take a deposition when a subpoena would not be practicable (See U.S. Code, Title 18, Section 3144).
Local police and federal law enforcement now use the term "person of interest" to call someone a suspect without affording those people the rights (including the chance to hold the government liable for mistakes) granted to actual suspects. The title can be bestowed casually by investigators, ruining an innocent person's life even if there is nothing to suggest the person is an actual suspect.
Suicide bombers have been called homicide bombers, hiding what should be an obvious human fact that something is causing these people to sacrifice their own lives to commit their atrocities. No one would deny that these bombings are homicides, but that seems implicit in the fact that it is a bombing. Suicide bomber is descriptive enough to distinguish cases where the bomber throws away their own life in the process from one where the bomb is detonated after the planter has had time to get away. 'Homicide bomber' is simply an attempt to trade description for emotion. No one needs to be reminded they are killers, but perhaps we do need to be reminded that for some reason they felt strongly enough about their cause to sacrifice their own life.
Mentions of the word terrorism, or allusions to terrorism, are today deftly maneuvered into everything from political speeches defending wars (even those to all appearances unrelated to terrorism) to abridgements of civil rights in the name of "safety" (as with the renaming of the Orwelling "Total Information Awareness" to "Terrorism Information Awareness" - a name most Americans would respond more kindly to when they heard a short sound-bite about it on the evening news...if they heard a short sound-bite about it on the evening news).
Even our very laws are taken over by euphemisms intending to play off of peoples' blind fear of terrorism: witness the awkward naming of the USA-PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act), which was passed almost immediately with no real debate, despite the fact that it dealt a devastating blow to civil liberties while granting the government huge powers and minimizing oversight..
It is perhaps not that surprising that the government attempts to twist words to their own purpose and make their actions seem more reasonable when they might otherwise be questioned. Lawmakers have always tried naming their bills in ways that appeal to emotion (witness the attempts to "improve education" of children by censoring half the world wide web in an attempt to stop pornography - in actuality leaving most all pornographic sites easy to access while blocking all sorts of legitimate information, including material of political dissent or health information). The military has always tried to gain support for its actions by characterizing the enemy with vague, emotive, even blatantly inaccurate words. One hopes that people see through the rhetoric, but obviously sometimes they don't. The fact is, the corporate media just latches right on to the euphemisms of the White House, the DoJ, the military, and soon the words become common speech and fastened themselves permanently into peoples' heads. We begin to think in their terms, and so we begin to think what they want us to think. By framing the terms of discourse, they largely frame the discourse itself.
Something needs to be done to break the spell that the government holds over people through the media. People need to realize that the morning paper and the evening news may not be accurate sources of information - may in fact just be mouthpieces for deliberate coercion by those in power. Language is power, and until we take back our language, we lose the power to think for ourselves.
Originally Written: 05-27-03
Last Updated: 11-14-03