Terrorism and the English Language
live on Manhattan Island and vividly recall watching Mohamed Atta
fly American Airlines Flight 11 right over my apartment balcony in
the East Village on the morning of September 11, 2001. The horror,
sadness, and fear of that rotten day quickly unfolded and remain
palpable even now.
within a week, some incredibly detached language emerged to
describe what happened on 9/11. Consider this message that Verizon
left in my voice mail box on September 19: "During this time of
crisis, we are asking all customers to review and delete all
current and saved messages that are not essential," a nameless
female announcer stated. "This request is necessary due to
extensive damage that was recently sustained in the World Trade
of crisis? Did a tidal wave cause the "recently sustained" wreckage
in Manhattan? Similarly, a company called Tullet & Tokyo
Liberty referred to "the disaster that has hit New York and
use of the passive voice in these and similar instances suggested
that the World Trade Center and Pentagon were smashed by unguided,
perhaps natural, forces.
Kinko's was even more elliptical. Shortly
after the massacre, the photocopying company placed in its stores
some very colorful posters with the Stars and Stripes superimposed
upon an outline of the lower 48 states. The graphic also included
this regrettable caption: "The Kinko's family extends our
condolences and sympathies to all Americans who have been affected
by the circumstances in New York City, Washington, D.C., and
Circumstances? That word describes an
electrical blackout, not terrorist bloodshed.
Likewise, I kept hearing that people
"died" in the Twin Towers or at the Pentagon. No, people "die" in
hospitals, often surrounded by their loved ones while doctors and
nurses offer aid and comfort. The innocent people at the World
Trade Center, the Defense Department, and that field in
Shanksville, Pennsylvania, were killed in a carefully choreographed
act of mass murder.
A Terrorist By Any Other Name
more this passive, weak, euphemistic language appeared as the war
on terrorism began, the more I thought it was vital to pay close
attention to the words, symbols, and images that govern this new
and urgent conflict.
civilized world today faces the most anti-Semitic enemy since Adolf
Hitler and Josef Goebbels committed suicide in Berlin nearly 60
years ago. Militant Islam is the most bloodthirsty ideology since
the Khmer Rouge eliminated one-third of Cambodia's people. The big
difference, of course, is that Pol Pot had the good manners to keep
his killing fields within his own borders, as awful as that
Islamo-fascism is a worldwide phenomenon
that already has touched this country and many of our allies. Yet
Muslim extremists rarely have armies we can see, fighter jets we
can knock from the sky, or an easily identifiable headquarters,
such as the Reichs Chancellery of the 1940s or the Kremlin of the
While basketball players and their fans
battle each other on TV, actresses suffer wardrobe malfunctions,
and rap singers scream sweet nothings in our ears, it is very easy
to forget that Islamic extremists plot daily to end all of that and
more by killing as many of us as possible.
Language can lull Americans to sleep in
this new war, or it can keep us on the offensive and our enemies
off balance. Here are a few suggestions to keep Americans alert to
the dangers Islamic terrorism poses to this country:
- September 11 was an attack--not just a
series of coincidental strokes and heart failures that wiped out so
many victims at once.
- Victims of terrorism do not "die," nor are
they "lost." They are killed, murdered, or slaughtered.
- We should be specific about the number of
people terrorists kill. "Three thousand" killed on 9/11 sounds like
an amorphous blob. The actual number--2,977--forces us to look at
these people as individuals with faces, stories, and loved ones who
miss them very much.
The precise figures are: 2,749 killed at the World Trade Center,
184 at the Pentagon, and 44 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Likewise,
the Bali disco bombings killed 202 people, mainly Australians. The
Madrid train bombings killed 191 men, women, and children.
Somehow, a total of 191 people killed by al-Qaeda's pals seems
more ominous and concrete than a smoothly rounded 200.
- Terrorists do not simply "threaten" us, nor is
homeland security supposed to shield Americans from "future
attacks." All of this is true, but it is more persuasive if we
acknowledge what these people have done and hope to do once
more--wipe us out.
Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), chairman of the House
Judiciary Committee, said this on NBC Nightly News last Sunday: "We
need to tighten up our drivers' license provisions and our
immigration laws so that terrorists cannot take advantage of the
present system to kill thousands of Americans again." That is a
perfect sound bite. There is no vague talk about "the terrorist
threat" or "stopping further attacks." Sensenbrenner concisely
explained exactly what is at risk, and what needs to be
thwarted--no more killing of Americans by the thousands again.
- Quote Islamo-fascist leaders to remind
people of their true intentions. President George W. Bush, Heritage
Foundation President Ed Feulner, or Deroy Murdock can talk about
how deadly militant Islam is and how seriously we should take this
gravely dangerous ideology. Far more persuasive, however, is to let
these extremists do the talking.
However, their words are nowhere as commonly known as they should
be. For instance, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri said in
their 1998 declaration of war on the United States: "The ruling to
kill all Americans and their allies--civilian and military--is an
individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in
which it is possible to do it."
The late Iranian dictator, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, put it
this way in 1980: "Our struggle is not about land or water.... It
is about bringing, by force if necessary, the whole of mankind onto
the right path." Ever the comedian, he said this in 1986: "Allah
did not create man so that he could have fun. The aim of creation
was for mankind to be put to the test through hardship and prayer.
An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no
jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in
Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious."
Asked what he would say to the loved ones of the 202 people killed
in the October 2002 Bali nightclub bombings, Abu Bakar Bashir,
leader of Indonesia's radical Jemaah Islamiyah, replied, "My
message to the families is, please convert to Islam as soon as
- The phrase "weapons of mass destruction"
(WMD) has been pounded into meaninglessness. It has been repeated
ad infinitum. Fairly or unfairly, the absence of warehouses full of
anthrax and nerve gas in Iraq has made the whole idea of "WMD"
sound synonymous with "L-I-E."
America's enemies do not plot the "mass destruction" of empty
office buildings or abandoned parking structures. Conversely, they
want to see packed office buildings ablaze as their inhabitants
scream for mercy. That is why I use the terms "weapons of mass
death" and "weapons of mass murder."
- When speaking about those who are killed
by terrorists, be specific, name them, and tell us about them.
Humanize these individuals. They are more than just statistics or
I have written 18 articles and produced a Web page,
HUSSEINandTERROR.com, to demonstrate that Saddam Hussein did have
ties to terrorism.
(By the way, I call him "Saddam Hussein" or "Hussein." I never call
him "Saddam" any more than I call Joseph Stalin "Joseph" or Adolf
Hitler "Adolf." "Saddam" has a cute, one-name ring to it, like
Cher, Gallagher, Liberace, or Sting. Saddam Hussein does not
deserve such a term of endearment.)
To show that Saddam Hussein's support of terrorism cost American
lives, I remind people about the aid and comfort he gave to
terrorism master Abu Nidal. Among Abu Nidal's victims in the 1985
bombing of Rome's airport was John Buonocore, a 20-year-old
exchange student from Delaware. Palestinian terrorists fatally shot
Buonocore in the back as he checked in for his flight. He was
heading home after Christmas to celebrate his father's 50th
In another example, those killed by Palestinian homicide bombers
subsidized by Saddam Hussein were not all Israeli, which would have
been unacceptable enough. Among the 12 or more Americans killed by
those Baathist-funded murderers was Abigail Litle, the 14-year-old
daughter of a Baptist minister. She was blown away aboard a bus in
Haifa on March 5, 2003. Her killer's family got a check for $25,000
courtesy of Saddam Hussein as a bonus for their son's
Is all of this designed to press emotional buttons? You bet it is.
Americans must remain committed--intellectually and emotionally--to
this struggle. There are many ways to engage the American people.
No one should hesitate to remind Americans that terrorism kills our
countrymen--at home and abroad--and that those whom militant Islam
demolishes include promising young people with bright futures, big
smiles, and, now, six feet of soil between them and their
- Finally, who are we fighting? Militants?
Melinda Bowman of Brief Hill, Pennsylvania, wrote this in a
November 24 letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal: "And,
by the way, what is all this `insurgent' nonsense? These people
kidnap, behead, dismember and disembowel. They are terrorists."
Nicely and accurately put, Ms. Bowman.
Is this a war on terror, per se? A war on terrorism? Or is it
really a war on Islamo-fascism? It is really the latter, and we
should say so.
Jim Guirard runs the TrueSpeak Institute in Washington, D.C. He
has thought long and hard about terrorism and the English language.
He informed me Tuesday--to my horror--that three years into the war
on terrorism, the State Department and the CIA have yet to produce
a glossary of the Arabic-language words that Middle Eastern
terrorists use, as well as the antonyms for those words. Such a
"Thesaurus of Terrorism" would help us linguistically to turn the
war on terrorism upside down.
Why, for instance, do we inadvertently praise our enemies by
agreeing that they fight a jihad or "holy war?" Why not correctly
describe them as soldiers in a hirabah or "unholy war?"
A Weapon at the Ready
closing, I would say that America and the rest of civilization can
and must win this new twilight struggle against these bloodthirsty
cavemen. We can and we will crush them through espionage, high-tech
force, statecraft, and public diplomacy overseas.
at home, we can and will vanquish them through eternal vigilance.
One of our chief weapons should be something readily available to
each and every one of us--the English language.
Deroy Murdock is a
nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News