Whilst the misuse of language has existed for centuries, contemporary manifestations show a particularly special and perfidious modus operandi. Namely, the language of deceit is acting as a proxy force, coining new phrases to justify hidden military, political and economic agendae.
By Dušan Babić
It has been widely known for centuries that the way people speaks tells more about them than anything else. One linguistic expert once remarked, “a word is the skin of a living thought”.
The centuries-long myth that only one English language exists was long ago shattered. Today, no one can deny that American English exists (some scholars even call it the American language). Though a relatively short – yet tempestuous – American history, thousands of typically American words and expressions had been coined, making it clearly distinct from British English.
This complex process begun as early as the British colonies were established in North America. Many words and expressions were borrowed or derived from languages non-British settlers spoke, as well as from American Indian languages, making it an exclusive American vocabulary, or ‘Americanisms.
These introductory remarks were necessary for providing a clearer picture about issues related to language manipulations, where English – as a lingua franca - bears special responsibility. In this very case, it is about American English. Commenting on the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States, Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in his opening lines, “America is more than a place. At its best, it also is an idea”. This was published in The New York Times, November 5th 2008, under the title “The Obama Dividend”.
Unfortunately, this idea has been brutally betrayed long ago by a greedy corporate spirit. The language of deceit has intensified, particularly after September 11th 2001. Whilst the misuse of language has existed for centuries, contemporary manifestations show a particularly special and perfidious modus operandi. Namely, the language of deceit is acting as a proxy force, coining new phrases to justify hidden military, political and economic agendae.
Here is a striking example. The term “collateral damage” is by far the most heinous, cruel and immoral coinage ever devised in the twentieth century. One might argue – what about the Final Solution, bearing in mind its horrific consequences? True, but the Final Solution was an outright project aimed annihilating an entire ethnic group from European soil. The Holocaust was the most monstrous undertaking in recorded history.
Originally introduced in the early sixties, “collateral damage” is damage to things that are incidental to the intended target. This term is primarily used by the military, with the purpose of explaining incidental destruction of non-military targets. In that context, intent is the crucial element in understanding the military definition, as it relates to target selection. The problem emerges when it comes to (mis)use of the term as an excellent pretext for committing crimes which go unpunished. The issue in question here is the armed drone attacks which kill innocent children, women and civilians, in general, but yet are regarded merely as “collateral damage.”
Some emerging changes might announce an end to this trend of impunity, at least gradually. The UN Human Rights Council – otherwise frequently criticized for its ineffectiveness – finally ordered an inquiry into the use of armed drones for remote targeted killing. A prominent British human rights lawyer, Ben Emmerson, leads the UN panel to investigate the rise in drone strikes. The key point will be to determine whether there is “a plausible allegation of unlawful killing” (Emmerson).
The White House is defending drone strikes under the pretext of defending national security against a stateless enemy, but that argument was strongly rejected by most countries and by a £majority of international lawyers outside the United States” (Emmerson).
A decisive issue was that of the so-called “double tap” drone attacks, including a second missile attack on a target, killing mourners at the funerals of those killed in the initial strike, which certainly constitutes a crime against humanity under international law. As such, any use of “collateral damage” as an excuse is simply unacceptable.
Drone strikes clearly fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was established in 1998 by the Rome Statute, and which entered into force on July 1st 2002. The ICC as a permanent legal institution, “shall have the power to exercise its jurisdiction over persons for the most serious crimes of international concern” ( Article 1, The Court).
My biting remark inserted in the title of this work (“Sins of American English…”), closely corresponds with my question – is the spirit of Rudyard Kipling still alive? Rudyard Kipling was an admired English writer in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the British Empire was at the height of its power. Kipling argued that the duty of highly-civilized nations was to take over and educate backward peoples, regardless of whether they wanted to be educated or not. Namely, exporting liberties and democracy by force – in particular after 9/11 – is an expanded model of what Kipling advocated. Many scholars, pundits and analysts agree that the United States has hijacked the word ‘terror’ in order to justify its unilateral actions across the globe. The main problem is that so-called “war on terror” has made the world more dangerous, since it affects basic human rights and liberties worldwide.
The term democracy has hopelessly lost its original meaning. In authentic democracy, supreme power rests with the people and is exercised by them. What we have today in America is a travesty of democracy. Not only in America but, by many parameters, in the rest of so-called Western democracies too.
One American minister remarked in the early seventies, “if America drops the torch of liberty, who is going to pick it up?”. Unfortunately, America dropped the torch of liberty already in 1945 by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing unprecedented destruction and loss of life. These bombs had little to do with military aims, but were intended to impress the Soviets during the early phases of Cold War.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, America’s path to a unipolar world has been widely-open. Although the Warsaw Pact was disbanded, corporate America and its military-industrial complex decided to retain NATO, with a significantly extended role and mandate. The first test was the bombing of Serbia in 1999, in accordance with a new doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”. It served as an excellent pretext for conducting unilateral actions, but at the same time it was detrimental for protecting and promoting basic human rights and liberties worldwide, in the context of a struggle to end impunity.
Five years ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote a book entitled “The Post-American World”. The first chapter, ‘The Rise of the Rest’, begins with the following sentence, “this is a book not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else. In brief, America cannot go alone anymore. For the first time ever, we are witnessing genuinely global growth. This is creating an international system in which countries in all parts of the world are no longer objects or observers but players in their own right. It is the birth of a truly global order…That does not mean we are entering an anti-American world. But we are moving into a post-American world, one defined and directed from many places and by many people.” That is something promising, and it is of crucial importance that mechanisms for monitoring and communicating human rights violations best found.
Yet in Pakistan alone to date, 176 children have been killed by indiscriminate drone attacks. Despite this, president Obama asserts that drone attacks are “ethical and just”? (Ethics Newsline, February 4th 2013). “Collateral damage” and possible future coinages are basically anti-American. The sins attributed to the American English should be re-directed to those who’ve employed language as an instrument of proxy force. Only by openly debating the validity of such terms an actions can we hope to end impunity globally.
Dušan Babić is a Sarajevo-based media and political analyst.