The Idiom of Political Violence: a Language Betrayed

The Chinese philosopher Confucius famously explained to his disciples that social disorder could be repaired beginning with the “rectification of names.” The principle was described by the Master this way, “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” Laborious translations aside, Confucius had a point some 2500 years ago. One of the many consequences of an errant idiom, he said, was that punishments wouldn’t be properly distributed. In other words, the guilty would go free, while the innocent would be punished, perhaps—in a pique of cruel irony—by the oppressors that had victimized them in the first place. Think here of President Barack Obama soullessly admonishing the nation that it was better to look forward than to look back, as he let Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld slip out the back door of the White House, unpunished for their depravity. Confucius would surely have loathed the facile casuistry with which American leaders manipulate the lexicon of power. It calls to mind iconic Swedish actor Max Von Sydow, who played a memorably cranky artist manqué in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. In one scene, after ranting about the decay of modern society, he informs his listener, “If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.” Add the Eastern sage to the list of posthumously ill.

Probably no nation has harnessed language more skillfully and insidiously than the American empire. Listening with a modern ear, Nazi propaganda sounds appallingly crude today (laughably so, were it not for the horror which that pastiche of prejudices engendered). At any rate, much of Goebbels’ fearmongering narrative would stand little chance of slipping through the editorial net of the American doctrinal system without extensive revision. The practice of inversion, when outright mendacity won’t suffice, has reached a pinnacle in Western propaganda. Everywhere one looks along the horizon of American political discourse, words have come untethered from their meanings, having been set adrift on a sea of inverted allusions.

Murder By Any Other Name

From every corner of the talk spectrum—from foreign policy to finance—the language of the Mainstream Media (MSM) is failing us. Consider some of the refashioned vocabulary of the War on Terror, changes wrought to affect exactly the kind of passivity with which they are now received. Just last week, The Intercept published insider information about the President’s drone program. We learned, among other things, the essential difference between “targeted killings” and “assassination”. Namely, nothing. They are one in the same. For what is an assassination but a summary execution the victim of which is stripped of his or her right to habeas corpus or the right to a fair trial. The Intercept article demonstrated that in many instances, the Pentagon did not know whom it was killing. Those slain with a double tap hit—one following the initial strike—were said to be “enemies killed in action” by virtue of their proximity to the strike.

Water Torture

Likewise, what is the difference between waterboarding and “water dousing”? In an effort to limit its culpability for waterboarding, the CIA evidently drew mincing distinctions between waterboarding and water dousing, the latter of which adds hypothermia to the sense of suffocation induced by water torture. The Senate’s report on torture, released last year, included a quote from a CIA linguist about a “shower” given to Gul Rahman, the only detainee said to have died in CIA “custody”. The reference was to water dousing.

On the Defensive

Last week, the Maritime Theater Missile Defense Forum successfully tested the long-heralded missile defense system in Europe for the first time. The system proposes to use anti-ballistic missiles to intercept ballistic missiles presumably carrying nuclear warheads, or possibly chemical weapons. Sounds defensive enough, but in reality the ABM system has long been an element of a first-strike strategy. Anti-Ballistic Missiles were evidently the first weapons that led the U.S. to believe they could win a nuclear war, an innovation that ended the long-standing “mutually assured destruction” consensus during the Cold War. It was Donald Rumsfeld who made anti-ballistic missiles part of a first-strike outline back in 1977. No surprise that George W. Bush—with Rumsfeld perhaps as an eminence grise whispering neoconservative fairy tales in his ear—who withdrew the U.S. from the long-standing ABM treaty in 2002. Soon after, NATO established its Rapid Response Force, which it has expanded, with up to 40,000 troops and new bases in Hungary and Slovakia. Then last year President Obama committed a billion dollars to upgrading tactical nukes in Europe.

No wonder Moscow is nervous. Not least because it has always suspected the missile defense system was aimed at its borders, no matter how vociferously Washington lackeys insisted it was intended to defend Europe from imminent Iranian threats. Now with an Iranian nuclear deal in place, the system’s ostensible purpose has simply collapsed. Perhaps now more than ever, Russia sees such a system on its borders as a threat to its deterrent arsenal.

This concern is due in no small part to Washington’s pugnacious behavior since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Namely, the inflation of American audacity in relation to interventionism, its insolent disregard for international law, and a growing presumption of its exceptional role in the world. A quarrelsome empire puts every nation in its crosshairs on high alert, fatuous self-defense apologetics aside.


In some cases, the definition changes rather than the word. Anti-Semite, for instance, has been claimed by the Zionist movement to indicate anti-Israeli attitudes rather than anti-Semite attitudes, deliberately ignoring the obvious fact that one can oppose Israeli foreign policy without being an anti-Semite, and the slightly less obvious fact that Palestinians and Arabs generally are also Semitic-speaking peoples. If each time someone was compelled to respond to “anti-Semitic” charges, he or she corrected his or her accusers with this knowledge, perhaps it would help rectify the language (to add the Confucian mantra to a Middle Eastern farrago).

We continually hear about the growth of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. References are always made to the “settlers”. But are they not first and foremost occupiers, some behaving as racist vigilantes backed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)? Should inhabitants of the gargantuan, 10-kilometer Green Zone in Baghdad have been called “settlers” during the occupation, since we knew many of them would never leave? (The largest and costliest “embassy” in the world now bears witness to this abject fact.) Likewise, shouldn’t the IDF be consistently referred to in news reportage as the “occupying force”? Anything less is likely an intentional disregard for international law. Stone throwers, too, have become terrorists worthy of a bullet in the eyes of Tel Aviv, though in fact they are lawfully resisting an unlawful occupation, not least according to the Fourth Geneva Convention.

It might also be worth noting that just this week the House of Representatives suspended aid to the Palestinian Authority on the pretext that it couldn’t be sure the monies would be used to fight terrorism. Of course, House members were thinking of Palestinians legally resisting occupation, rather than the true terrorism in the territories, that of the IDF’s ongoing brutalization of the Palestinian community, a program to which adolescent stone flingers have now been cruelly appended.

War Trauma

The idiom of trauma too has been muted with time. Last year a coterie of physician organizations released a study that estimated, rather conservatively by their own admission, that the War on Terror has caused approximately 1.3 million deaths since 9/11. The study confined itself to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It is a staggering figure. Yet many of those who inflicted those casualties—including young American service men and women lured into the slaughterhouse of imperial conquest—may never truly escape the horrors of the wars they fought in.

Mental disorders caused by exposure to explosive violence in World War I was called “shell shock,” a term eventually deemed too graphic for the delicate public. It was replaced by “combat stress reaction,” “combat fatigue,” and “postconcussional syndrome,” supposed precursor conditions to the longer-term illness of the modern lexicon, post-traumatic stress disorder, or simply and elusively PTSD. Depression and other cognitive and physical ailments often proceed from PTSD. Half of Vietnam War veterans experienced “clinically serious stress reaction symptoms.” Percentages are smaller for the Gulf Wars and the Afghanistan campaign, but still statistically—and individually—significant.

Moderating Influences

The latest among Washington’s criminal enterprises, the entire Syrian fiasco has been fobbed off on the American populace with a single phrase: “moderate rebels.” This phrase was sufficient to satisfy the vague curiosities of the public mind, busy as it is coping with our low-wage economic recovery. Hillary Clinton too will be required to sound but a few progressive notes during her campaign in order to inter Bernie Sanders’ fledging run for the presidency. A precisely formulated lie, endlessly rehearsed, is the standard trick of the trade. In this case, it was the pretense that American was merely supporting—with nonlethal assistance at first—proper warriors of conscience rising up against a brutal dictator in Bashar al-Assad.

Forget that these were rather violent sectarian Islamists willing to partner with an imperial state to overthrow a secular one. Forget that very quickly the “rebel” community was principally comprised of ISIS fanatics and slightly less cretinous al-Qaeda affiliates in Jabhat al-Nusra. Or that the United States and its roguish mélange of fundamentalist allies abetted their opportunism with weapons, cash, and training. Or that the entire venture was fueled by jihadists drawn from Washington’s demolition job in another secular state in Libya, and from other zones of imperial conflict. It is this nasty confection of “moderate rebels” that likely launched the infamous chemical attack against a Damascan suburb, and have since threatened suicide attacks against Russian soldiers, and freely fight against a Syrian government overwhelmingly supported in its last election. Nor should we overlook the shift in the Pentagon’s training program for fighters in Syria. Sounds as though Washington may be escalating the conflict in response to Russian involvement. In any event, the new plan offers a “crash course in human rights” to jihadists; a farcical concession to principles it confesses to exalt but in practice deprioritizes, to put it mildly. “Moderation” is a term that hardly applies, in any sense, to the Syrian conflict.

Others have noted with suspicion the so-called “safe zones” along the Turkish border, supposedly intended to offer sanctuary to those fleeing the Assad regime and for “moderate” rebels to refurbish their munitions. In actuality, it is far more reasonable to suspect these “buffer zones” are simply supply lines for radical Islamists to receive their once-clandestine support from NATO coffers. Tony Cartalucci of New Eastern Outlook calls them “ratlines,” an fitting reference to the escape routes charted for fleeing fascists after World War Two.

You might convincingly argue that U.S. involvement in the escalation of the Syrian struggle is an act of state terrorism. Some 220,000 people have been killed, four million are refugees, and another 13 million are internally in need of humanitarian assistance. How much of this harm would never have happened had not Washington cynically intervened to advance its neoconservative game plan of capsizing the Shia Crescent? But of course, language intervenes. According to the U.S. State Department, a state can’t commit acts of terrorism, by definition. Only “subnational” groups can descend to such levels of depravity.

And there you have it, a tidy glossary of plausible deniability, blaming the victim, framing aggression as self-defense, and all manner of premeditated deceit cloaked in the patois of patriotism. If the current state of our union is in any way reflective of the wanton use of our language, Confucius is a modern Cassandra, ignored at our peril.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at