An Abuse of Language


By Dr James J Zogby, President, Arab American Institute

The last US administration displayed a rather perverse and dangerous penchant for dressing up their behaviour, providing it with religious or patriotic intent. President Bush packaged the Iraq war, for example, as America’s mission – having been charged by God to bring the gift of freedom to the world. The “war on terror” was presented through the lens of the Second World War and the Cold War and transformed into a battle of cosmic proportions against those who “hate our freedom” and “our way of life”. US troops who were sent into battle in Iraq were seen as “defending our freedom” or “making America safe”.

Politicians were especially hesitant to criticise this hyper-inflated rhetoric not wanting to appear insensitive to the public’s fear or disrespectful of the sacrifices of those who had died or been maimed in the Iraq war.

Left unchallenged, this abuse of language continued to grow and become accepted in some quarters, doing damage to our political discourse and distorting our sense of reality. Speaking to the National Tea Party Convention last month, for example, former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin rebuked the Obama administration for charging a would-be terrorist as a criminal defendant and providing him the opportunity to “invoke our constitutional right…”. She went on:

“Our US constitutional rights. Our rights that you fought and were willing to die for to protect in our constitution. The rights that my son, as an infantryman in the US Army, is willing to die for. The protections provided, thanks to you, we are going to bestow them on a terrorist who hates our constitution and tries to destroy our constitution and our country”.

While Palin is wrong on so many levels, her comments, reflecting the degree to which the national discussion has become distorted and out of touch with reality, must be rebutted.

First of all, it is just plain silly to bestow upon a pathetic failed would-be airplane bomber the capacity or even the intention to “destroy our constitution and our country”. I have no doubt of his evil motives or of the hatred in his heart, but making him or those who sent him larger than they are serves no useful purpose.

Second, after seven years of the Iraq war and nine years of Afghanistan, it must be clear that these were not wars to defend “our constitution” . One of these wars was designed to depose and punish those who cruelly attacked us on 9/11 murdering 3,000 innocents. The other was based on a series of fabricated motives none of which could be construed as playing a role in making America safer or defending the constitution.

It is important to take Palin to task for embracing what has become a popular misconception and that is that the rights detailed in the constitution are “ours” alone. US courts have continually affirmed that the rights described in the constitution apply to all “persons” who reside in the US, not just citizens. The courts have also determined that the constitutional rights of habeas corpus and due process and protections against “cruel and unusual punishment” and self-incrimination also apply to prisoners in US custody in Guantanamo or even some of those detained at Baghram in Afghanistan.

It is vitally important to pierce through the cloud of obfuscation and inflated rhetoric of the past decade and to advance a clearer understanding of who we are as a people and the exact nature of our role in the world. The reality we will discover is neither Bush’s divinely ordained America with its saving mission nor Palin’s more narrowly defined chauvinism.

It will require that we undergo a painful process of self-examination demanding full transparency and full accountability for past behaviour. We cannot continue to ignore the fact that innocent lives were lost in an unnecessary war and America’s reputation was sullied by horrific and illegal acts committed in our name.

Finally, it is important that Americans study our history and our foundational documents. It is shocking to note how few know the Bill of Rights. Even more disturbing, is to note as F Lee Bailey, one of our nation’s great defence lawyers, once did, that if the language of the constitution and the Bill of Rights were reintroduced today they would be seen as “unpatriotic” and would in all likelihood not receive public support and would not pass Congress.

The damage done by this abuse of language goes beyond a wasteful war and confusion in our national discussion of critical issues. By inflaming passions in support of unconstitutional behaviour, this rhetoric puts at risk the very freedoms it claims to be defending.

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