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The United States of Euphemism

Judging by the local newspaper that serves the rural area of Pennsylvania where I live, hunters no longer shoot and kill deer: they harvest them.  “Harvest” is the latest euphemism of choice for killing, and it’s applied not just to the culling of the deer herd but also to the killing of bears, bobcats, and other predators.

In his speech on national security before the American Enterprise Institute on May 21st, former Vice President Dick Cheney complained of the “emergence of euphemisms [under the Obama administration] that strive to put an imaginary distance between the American people and the terrorist enemy.”  Instead of being properly at war with terrorists and other “killers and would-be mass murderers,” we were now involved, Cheney dismissively noted, in so-called “overseas contingency operations,” a catch-all term adopted by the Obama administration in place of the previous administration’s “war on terror.”

Yet for all of Cheney’s posturing about the allegedly milquetoast euphemisms of Obama, he persisted in repeatedly invoking “enhanced interrogation” for methods of torture (such as waterboarding) that have been previously prosecuted as war crimes by the United States.

But the former vice president did put his finger on a problem: Our collective acquiescence in the temporizing – the terrorizing, even – of our language.  Mr. Cheney himself continues to stare unblinkingly at euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation methods,” which cloak the reality of bodies being slammed against walls and water being pored down people’s throats.  As a country, our eyes glaze over when we see the repetition of terms like “collateral damage,” an overused military euphemism that obscures the reality of innocents blown to bits or babies buried under rubble.

Perhaps our temporizing began right after World War II, when the Department of War was folded under and rebranded as the Department of Defense.  Coincidentally, just before this occurred, George Orwell penned his classic essay, “The Politics of the English Language” (1946).  It remains telling:

[P]olitical language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.  Defenseless 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.

This last point is essential, and it also explains the purpose of the phrase “enhanced interrogation.”  After all, how many Americans in 2002 would have favored a “war on terror” if our government plainly admitted it was using torture to terrorize suspects?

As President Obama famously said during the 2008 Presidential Campaign, “Words matter.”  But, following the lead of the former vice president, Obama also made the political choice of citing “enhanced interrogation techniques” four times in his speech on national security on May 21st, though at first reference he did qualify the phrase.  In the same speech, Obama demonstrated his own linguistic dexterity, coining the phrase “prolonged detention” to cloak his proposal of indefinite imprisonment of “enemy combatants” without trial.

Prolonged detention: It sounds quaint, like a few days of after-school punishment for misbehaving in class, instead of what it could become – open-ended confinement to a gulag.

Of course, we all recognize that we live in an age of public relations, propaganda, and advertising.  Post-modernism as well as deconstruction, moreover, seemingly support the malleability of meaning and the lability of language.  Even so, whether you’re Dick Cheney or Barack Obama, changing the words does not change the reality.  Instead, our linguistic gymnastics not only tortures our language: It cripples our thinking and even pollutes our souls.

The most blatant historical example of this pollution occurred in Nazi Germany, as brilliantly exposed by Victor Klemperer in The Language of the Third Reich.  Klemperer shows, for example, how the word “fanatical” was redefined under Nazi rule from a pejorative to a desirable trait.  This and similar linguistic barbarisms, Klemperer concluded, acted as “Poison[,] which you drink unawares and which has its effect.”

Let’s stop drinking the poison.  Let’s stop unthinking or dishonest references to “enhanced interrogation” or for that matter to “prolonged detention” and “overseas contingency operations.”  Let’s speak plainly – if we must speak at all – of torture and of killing – whether during hunting season in the forests and fields of Pennsylvania or during combat in the plains and mountains of Afghanistan.

At least then we won’t be hiding behind the false camouflage of euphemisms to justify our blood sports – and our even bloodier wars.