Words of the powerful spell out the power of words

February 03, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

Words matter.

In the tradition of those who could hear the sound of one hand clapping, Bill Clinton urged us to consider the definition of "is." When he said there is no relationship, he didn't mean there hadn't been one. Even at the time of this meticulous parsing, we (sort of) knew what he meant.

So maybe the former president was a little too careful with words. Cute, some would say. Maybe even slick.

The point? Words can clarify, obfuscate or ensnare. It's worth reminding ourselves.

You could ask President Bush, who seems to be developing an appreciation for words. He's becoming a good communicator. People appreciate his passion, his caring, his leadership.

But he has to be careful. A somewhat careless employment of "crusade" caused him some problems at the beginning of the war on terrorism. Crusade connotes something threatening in the Islamic world because Christians of an earlier time wanted to proselytize and were willing to bear arms in pursuit of converts. So, was our president attacking terrorism or reasserting a religious claim?

Mr. Bush has done an admirable job since then of separating our revulsion for al-Qaida from the overwhelmingly peaceful adherents of Islam. Mr. Bush came into office with a bit of a chip on his shoulder about Mr. Clinton and other intellectuals. Or so it seemed. Now he sees that, beyond the realm of what "is" is, words matter.

He saw that again last week after his State of the Union address. Once again he invoked his image of "the evil ones." He spoke of an "evil axis," a turn that had some historic resonance. In World War II, Americans rallied against the Axis powers, originally Germany and Italy. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill used that shorthand, yoking our enemies to a shared malevolence.

We know what President Bush wants to do, but in last week's speech he suggested that a much wider war could be at hand. Surely he intended something along those lines. The world, we know now, harbors criminal elements willing to kill themselves to kill more of us. So his words have to keep us vigilant. But they ought not to confuse potential enemies or over-promise us. Speechwriters (not to speak of newspaper writers) should proceed carefully.

And public officials, particularly those with great power, must exercise restraint - which is not to say they should ladle out pabulum. The words employed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld keep faith with the victims of Sept. 11 and signal an uncompromising will to the terrorists. We may legitimately ask, though, whether he goes too far when he evinces little concern about the wellbeing of the prisoners (by whatever nomenclature) now kept at Guantanamo. Won't our soldiers end up in similar circumstances? Shouldn't we, as a civilized nation, exercise concern about human life? Mr. Rumsfeld says we've been kind, but which of his words carried the most meaning?

And what of the vice president, Dick Cheney? So far, we don't have the right words. He refuses to turn over records of conversations he had with Enron during the formulation of national energy policy. To do that, he said, would be "unprecedented in the sense that it's never happened before." That's what unprecedented means, of course.

In this case, though, Mr. Cheney's probably wrong. Congress and presidents struggle over such matters all the time. And some of the disputed papers eventually get turned over.

What we need is a sense of who the private policymakers are: just Enron, or other companies as well? Was Enron's access unprecedented?

Words leverage policy.

The U.S. attorney for Maryland, Thomas M. DiBiagio, does not like the word "exile," or least would prefer to avoid it when describing his approach to gun violence. Others, including Mayor Martin O'Malley and this newspaper, wish he would use it. It's a powerful word. It connotes a dire consequence for those who carry guns. Its use in other cities has helped reduce violence.

So, one laments its absence, but another word might emerge and do equally well.

Words help us understand what's happening to us at many levels.

When a company "downsizes" or announces "layoffs," doesn't that mean workers are being sent into the street without jobs? Will those workers be coming back to work when the economy improves? In earlier times, people were "let go," a term that seemed to connote some finality.

Today we get things like "restructure."

We're onto all of these euphemisms. We know what smarmy is.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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