The words of wartime require precision

Language: "Crusade' was a poor choice

even "terrorist' has its critics as journalists and others want their words to pack just the right punch.

September 28, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Words count, as President Bush learned while finding his wartime voice. At one point, he said America and other countries would wage a "crusade" against a net work of extremist Islamic terrorists believed to have carried out the deadly Sept. 11 attacks.

That term quickly faded from use, for it conjured up images of assaults by Euro pean Christians centuries ago on Middle Eastern lands. It was exactly the wrong message for the White House to send as it sought to convince Muslims there that the United States wasn't waging war against their religion.

Journalists are also struggling to choose precisely the right words for their stories about the attacks.

Earlier this week, the nation's chief group of religion reporters voted to urge colleagues to avoid simplistic descriptions fixed on faith, such as "Islamic terrorists."

Meanwhile, Reuters, an international news wire based in London, has reaffirmed what it says is a decades-old policy barring use of emotive terms such as "terrorist" - even to describe those who hijacked and intentionally crashed commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing thousands. The news service has carried stories referring to the "attacks," but not to "terrorist attacks."

"We do not characterize the subjects of news stories but instead report their actions, identity and background," Reuters said in a written statement.

To strip possibly offensive terms from accounts of the attacks may appear to emasculate the force of language used to convey the scale of the ensuing cata strophic damage and tragedy. CNN, for example, calls the acts terrorism, although it makes sure to say "alleged terrorist" when talking about specific people. Other outlets, such as The Sun, and the Associated Press, are generally following similar practices.

But some journalists say that they can provide more context, not excuse perpetrators of violence, by avoiding certain terms. Seemingly accurate phrases may actually serve as a shorthand that perpetuates stereotypes during charged times.

"We're absolutely in favor of having the deeper motivations of any terrorist group explained," said David Briggs, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who is president of the Religion Newswriters Association. "We just don't refer, in general, to terrorist acts by the religious affiliation."

Those who take part in the violence that has preoccupied Northern Ireland may be identified in news accounts by their religion. But more importance, Briggs said, is generally placed on their affiliation with specific parties to the conflict, such as a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army or the Ulster Defense Association.

CNN, inspired by Bush's words, has labeled the events "America's New War" in an on-screen caption for much of its coverage. Yet that term rings false to French Presi dent Jacques Chirac, who has pledged support for the United States: "I don't know whether we should use the word "war'."

In yesterday's New York Times, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld acknowledged the imprecision of familiar terms to describe the new efforts against a shadowy foe not bound to any one country. "The vocabulary of this war will be different," he wrote. "When we "invade the enemy's territory." we may well be invading his cyberspace."

Rumsfeld had earlier with drawn the name of "Operation Infinite Justice" in favor of "Operation Enduring Freedom" after Islamic clerics complained that, in their faith, only God can render infinite justice.

Reuters' claim of neutrality and the religion writers' lament seeking context find unexpected echoes in the comments of Columbia University's Edward Said, a renowned Palestinian scholar who is a prominent critic of U.S. policy and the American media.

In a Sept. 16 opinion piece in the British newspaper The Observer, Said wrote: "No cause, no God, no abstract idea can justify the mass slaughter of innocents." However, Said argued that Israel and the United States were masking ruthless policies behind the words they used to describe the bloody attacks.

"Political rhetoric has overridden these things by flinging about words like "terrorism' and "freedom'," he wrote. "Such large abstractions have mostly hidden sordid material interests, the influence of the oil, defense and Zionist lobbies now consolidating their hold on the entire Middle East, and an age-old religious hostility to [and ignorance of] "Islam' that takes new forms every day."

The label "Islam" is inadequate to represent the motivations of the hijackers, Said wrote. "Much as it has been quarreled over by Muslims, there isn't a single Islam: there are Islams, just as there are Americas."

From the other end of the political spectrum, conservative columnist George Will this week questioned the widespread invocation of several words, including tragedy."

"What America suffered at the hands of its enemies is not a tragedy," Will wrote. "What erupted on Sept. 11 is a war of aggression."

The war fought by the United States may not be described by everyone as a war, and its enemy may not be characterized by all media as terrorism. The struggle over language, however, seems likely to endure.

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