Commentary Magazine


Homeland Linguistics

The Obama administration has made great changes in the way we handle national security. And judging by its actions so far, it seems that the most important failing of the previous administration has been in semantics.

The changes started with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano deciding that the word “terrorism” was too harsh. She has made a point of not using it, opting  instead for “man-caused disasters.”

That was merely phase one. The next logical step was to find a new term for the “War On Terror.” The proffered substitute? “Overseas Contingency Operation.”

I was never in love with the term “War On Terror.” Terrorism isn’t the enemy, it’s a tactic of an enemy. Referring to the War onTerror is like referring to World War II as the “War on Blitzkrieg” or “War on Kamikazes.” “War Against Islamist Extremists” seemed a bit more accurate — if a bit on the nose.

But “Overseas Contingency Operation”? Let’s break it down.

“Overseas.” That’s intended to make us feel safe — it’s happening Over There, across the oceans, and isn’t really a problem for us here.

“Contingency.” According to one dictionary,  it has the following meanings:

1. dependence on chance or on the fulfillment of a condition; uncertainty; fortuitousness: Nothing was left to contingency.
2. a contingent event; a chance, accident, or possibility conditional on something uncertain: He was prepared for every contingency.
3. something incidental to a thing.

In other words: a state wherein something might or might not happen. This is an utterly empty word in this context.

“Operation.” A singular thing, something considerably smaller than a war or even a campaign.

Let’s nor forget that Napolitano’s “man-caused disasters” has its own implications. “Man-caused disasters” makes one think of things like the Exxon Valdez oil spill, or global warming global cooling climate change, or mine collapses, or dam failures, or Chernobyl — not things like the 9/11 attacks.

In both cases, the effect is to diminish the magnitude of the problem and remove the key element that differentiates terrorist attacks from the above-mentioned examples: intent.

The major difference between Chernobyl and 9/11 was intent. At Chernobyl, it was gross negligence at every stage of the process that led to the biggest nuclear accident in history. The 9/11 attacks, on the other hand, were carried out in with malice and a desire to maximize damage.

It’s almost laughable. The Obama administration thinks the best way to fight terrorists is to change the way we talk about them — and for most Islamic terrorists, English isn’t their native language.

It would be truly laughable — but the focus on language will most likely come at the expense of action.