Words of war on terror

Published : Sep 29, 2001 00:00 IST


THE first draft of President Franklin Roosevelt's request to Congress for a declaration of war began, "Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in world history." In his second draft, he crossed out "world history" and substituted a condemnatory word that was far more memorable: infamy.

Though its adjective, infamous, was frequently used, the noun infamy was less familiar. It means "evil fame, shameful repute, notorious disgrace" and befitted the nation's shock at the bloody destruction at Pearl Harbour, a successful surprise blow that was instantly characterised by the victim nation as a "sneak attack". The word, with its connotation of wartime shock and horror, was chosen by headline writers to label the terrorist attack on New York and Washington that demolished the twin towers of the World Trade Center and a portion of the Pentagon. In newspapers and on television, the historical day of infamy was the label chosen, along with the more general "attack on America". The killers were hijackers. This Americanism, origin unknown, was first cited in 1912 as to kick up high jack, which Dialect Notes defined as "to cause a disturbance"; 10 years later, a book about hobos noted "hi-jacking, or robbing men at night when sleeping in the jungles". In the 1960s, as terrorists began seizing control of airliners, the verb skyjack was coined but it has since fallen into disuse.

The suicidal hijackers were able to slip a new weapon through the metal detectors: a box cutter, defined in the on-top-of-the-news New Oxford American Dictionary (to be published next month) as "a thin, inexpensive razor-blade knife designed to open cardboard boxes." Barbara Olson, a passenger aboard the airliner doomed to be crashed into the Pentagon, was able to telephone her husband, Solicitor General Ted Olson; she told him that the hijackers were armed with knives and what she called a cardboard cutter.

These terrorists were suicide bombers, a phrase used in a 1981 Associated Press dispatch by Tom Baldwin in Lebanon about the driving of an explosives-laden car into the Iraqi Embassy. In 1983, Newsweek reported that "the winds of fanaticism have blown up a merciless throng of killers: the assassins, thugs, kamikazes - and now the suicide bombers". Kamikaze is Japanese for "divine wind", a reference to a storm in the 13th century that blew away a fleet of invading Mongols. In the Second World War, the word described suicidal pilots who dived their planes into enemy ships. English has now absorbed the word: Al Hunt of The Wall Street Journal wrote last week that airline policy "was turned upside down by these kamikaze fanatics". Hunt, like President Bush and many others, called these acts of murder-suicide cowardly. That is not a modifier I would use, nor would I employ its synonym dastardly (though FDR did), which also means "shrinking from danger". If anything, the suicide bomber or suicide hijacker is maniacally fearless, the normal human survival instinct overwhelmed by hatred or brainwashed fervour.

Senseless and mindless are other mistaken modifiers of these killings: the sense, or evil purpose, of modern barbaric murder is to carry out a blindly worshipped leader's desire to shock, horrify and ultimately intimidate the target's compatriots.

Another word that deserves a second look is justice. Both Senator John McCain and the Bush advisor Karen Hughes called for "swift justice" to be meted out to the perpetrators, ordinarily a sentiment widely shared. But the columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote: "There should be no talk of bringing these people to 'swift justice'... An open act of war demands a military response, not a judicial one."

Finally, the word terrorist. It is rooted in the Latin terrere, "to frighten", and the -ist was coined in France to castigate the perpetrators of the Reign of Terror. Edmund Burke in 1795 defined the word in English: "Those hell-hounds called terrorists... are let loose on the people." The sternly judgmental word should not be avoided or euphemised. Nobody can accurately call those who plotted, financed and carried out the infamous mass slaughter of September 11 militants, resistance fighters, gunmen, partisans or guerillas. The most precise word to describe a person or group who murders even one innocent civilian to send a political message is terrorist.

New York Times Service
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