Euphemism and American Violence

In Tacitus’ Agricola, a Caledonian rebel named Calgacus, addressing “a close-packed multitude” preparing to fight, declares that Rome has overrun so much of the world that “there are no more nations beyond us; nothing is there but waves and rocks, and the Romans, more deadly still than these—for in them is an arrogance which no submission or good behavior can escape.” Certain habits of speech, he adds, abet the ferocity and arrogance of the empire by infecting even the enemies of Rome with Roman self-deception:

A rich enemy excites their cupidity; a poor one, their lust for power. East and West alike have failed to satisfy them…. To robbery, butchery, and rapine, they give the lying name of “government”; they create a desolation and call it peace.

The frightening thing about such acts of renaming or euphemism, Tacitus implies, is their power to efface the memory of actual cruelties. Behind the façade of a history falsified by language, the painful particulars of war are lost. Maybe the most disturbing implication of the famous sentence “They create a desolation and call it peace” is that apologists for violence, by means of euphemism, come to believe what they hear themselves say.

On July 21, 2006, the tenth day of the Lebanon war, Condoleezza Rice explained why the US government had not thrown its weight behind a cease-fire:

What we’re seeing here, in a sense, is the growing—the birth pangs of a new Middle East, and whatever we do, we have to be certain that we’re pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one.

Very likely these words were improvised. “Growing pains” seems to have been Rice’s initial thought; but as she went on, she dropped the “pains,” turned them into “pangs,” and brought back the violence with a hint of redemptive design: the pains were only birth pangs. The secretary of state was thinking still with the same metaphor when she spoke of “pushing,” but a literal image of a woman in labor could have proved awkward, and she trailed off in a deliberate anticlimax: “pushing forward” means “not going back.”

Many people at the time remarked the incongruity of Rice’s speech as applied to the devastation wrought by Israeli attacks in southern Lebanon and Beirut. Every bombed-out Lebanese home and mangled limb would be atoned for, the words seemed to be saying, just as a healthy infant vindicates the mother’s labor pains. Looked at from a longer distance, the statement suggested a degree of mental dissociation. For the self-serving boast was also offered as a fatalistic consolation—and this by an official whose call for a cease-fire might well have stopped the war. “The birth pangs of a new Middle East” will probably outlive most other phrases of our time, because, as a kind of metaphysical “conceit,” it accurately sketches the state of mind of the President and his advisers in 2006.

The phrase also marked a notable …

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