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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 recent example of a turn of language one may as well call revolutionary euphemism. This was an invention of the later eighteenth century, but it was brought into standard usage in the twentieth—“You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs”—by Stalin’s apologists for revolution and forced modernization in the 1930s. The French Revolutionist Jean-Marie Roland spoke of the mob violence of the attack on the Tuileries as agitation or effervescence, never as “massacre” or “murder”—improvising, as he went, a cleansing metaphor oddly similar to Rice’s “birth pangs.”

It was natural, said Roland, “that victory should bring with it some excess. The sea, agitated by a violent storm, roars long after the tempest.” The task of the revolutionary propagandist, at a temporary setback, is to show that his zeal is undiminished. This he must do with a minimum of egotism, and the surest imaginable protection is to invoke the impartial authority of natural processes.

If one extreme of euphemism comes from naturalizing the cruelties of power, the opposite extreme arises from a nerve-deadening understatement. George Orwell had the latter method in view when he wrote a memorable passage of “Politics and the English Language”:

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Orwell’s insight was that the italicized phrases are colorless by design and not by accident. He saw a deliberate method in the imprecision of texture. The inventors of this idiom meant to suppress one kind of imagination, the kind that yields an image of things actually done or suffered; and they wanted to put in its place an imagination that trusts to the influence of larger powers behind the scenes. Totalitarianism depends on the creation of people who take satisfaction in such trust; and totalitarian minds are in part created (Orwell believed) by the ease and invisibility of euphemism.

Before launching their response to Islamic jihadists in September 2001, members of the administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney gave close consideration to the naming of that response. The President has been reported by Bob Woodward and Robert Draper to have said to his staff that they should all view the September 11 attack as an “opportunity.”1 His sense of that word in this context is hard to interpret, but its general bearings are plain. Imaginative leadership, the President was saying, must do far more than respond to the attack, or attend to the needs of self-preservation. Better to use the attack as an opportunity to “go massive,” as Donald Rumsfeld noted on September 11. “Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” A similar sense of Bush’s purpose has recently been recalled by Karl Rove. “History has a funny way of deciding things,” Rove said to an audience at the University of Pennsylvania on February 20, 2008. “Sometimes history sends you things, and 9/11 came our way.” But so, all the more pressingly: how to name the massive and partly unrelated response to a catastrophe which was also an opportunity?

The name must admit the tremendousness of the task and imply its eventual solubility, but also discourage any close inquiry into the means employed. They wanted to call it a war; but what sort of war? The phrase they agreed on, the global war on terrorism, was at once simple-sounding and elusive, and it has served its purpose as nothing more definite could have done.

The “global war on terrorism” promotes a mood of comprehension in the absence of perceived particulars, and that is a mood in which euphemisms may comfortably take shelter. There is (many commentators have pointed out) something nonsensical in the idea of waging war on a technique or method, and terrorism was a method employed by many groups over many centuries before al-Qaeda—the Tamil Tigers, the IRA, the Irgun, to stick to recent times. But the “war on crime” and “war on drugs” probably helped to render the initial absurdity of the name to some degree normal. This was an incidental weakness, in any case. The assurance and the unspecifying grandiosity of the global war on terrorism were the traits most desired in such a slogan.

Those qualities fitted well with a style of white-lipped eloquence that Bush’s speechwriter Michael Gerson had begun to plot into his major speeches in late 2001. It made for a sort of continuous, excitable, canting threat, emitted as if unwillingly from a man of good will and short temper. Gerson, from his Christian evangelical beliefs and journalistic ability (he had worked for US News & World Report and ghostwritten the autobiography of Chuck Colson), worked up for the President a highly effective contemporary “grand style” that skated between hyperbole and evasion. The manner suggested a stark simplicity that was the end product of sophisticated analysis and a visionary impatience with compromise.

This was exactly the way President Bush, in his own thinking, turned his imaginative vices into virtues, and he intuitively grasped the richness of a phrase like “the soft bigotry of low expectations” or “history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies”—resonant formulae which he approved and deployed, over the challenges of his staff. What did the phrases mean? As their creator knew, the mode of their nonmeaning was the point. Like “pacification” and “rectification of frontiers,” these markers of unstated policy were floating metaphors with a low yield of fact. But they left an image of decisiveness, with an insinuation of contempt for persons slower to pass from thought to action.

Euphemism has been the leading quality of American discussions of the war in Iraq. This was plain in the run-up to the war, with the talk of “regime change”—a phrase welcomed by reporters and politicians as if they had heard it all their lives. Regime change seemed to pass at a jump beyond the predictable either/or of “forced abdication” and “international war of aggression.” Regime change also managed to imply, without saying, that governments do, as a matter of fact, often change by external demand without much trouble to anyone. The talk (before and just after the war) of “taking out” Saddam Hussein was equally new. It combined the reflex of the skilled gunman and the image of a surgical procedure so routine that it could be trusted not to jeopardize the life of the patient. It had its roots in gangland argot, where taking out means knocking off, but its reception was none the worse for that.

Are Americans more susceptible to such devices than other people are? Democracy exists in continuous complicity with euphemism. There are so many things (the staring facts of inequality, for example) about which we feel it is right not to want to speak gratingly. One result is a habit of circumlocution that is at once adaptable and self-deceptive. “Their own approbation of their own acts,” wrote Edmund Burke of the people in a democracy, “has to them the appearance of a public judgment in their favor.” Since the people are not always right but are by definition always in the majority, their self-approbation, Burke added, tends to make them shameless and therefore fearless. The stratagems of a leader in a democracy include giving the people a name for everything, but doing so in a way that maintains their own approbation of their own acts. Thus a war the people trust their government to wage, over which we have no control, but about which we would prefer to think happy thoughts, gives the widest possible scope to the exertions of euphemism.

  1. 1

    Bob Woodward, Bush at War (Simon and Schuster, 2002), p. 32; Robert Draper, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush (Free Press, 2007), p. 166.

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