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Thursday, May 19, 2005 

The Power of Language

Christopher Hitchens wonders why the New York Times calls murderous Islamists "insurgents".

Really, though. What are they "insurging" against? As far as I can tell, it is the new legitimate democratic government of the people of Iraq. More Iraqis die in these attacks than American soldiers. But according to people like Michael Moore, these killers are the "Minutemen" of Iraq, equating their murderous rampage to the men who fought and died at Lexington and Concord. It's just interesting to see how different people use labels to legitimize murder.



1 : a person who revolts against civil authority or an established government

C'mon. Hitchens says that you can't peg "those who devastated its hometown's downtown as 'insurgents.'" What?! Is he living in a political vacuum? They're trying to create chaos and, yes, bring down their "established government". That is an insurgency. He thinks that the word insurgency has a positive connotation... I suppose he needs to leave his desk and his blogs once in awhile and ask someone on the street what their first thought is after hearing the word "insurgent". I guarantee you it's not John Hancock.

If you read the actual NYT article, by the way, you'd realize the Hitchens' argument is crap.

For example, Bennet (NYT) says:
But insurgents in Iraq appear to be fighting for varying causes: Baath Party members are fighting for some sort of restoration of the old regime; Sunni Muslims are presumably fighting to prevent domination by the Shiite majority; nationalists are fighting to drive out the Americans; and foreign fighters want to turn Iraq into a battlefield of a global religious struggle. Some men are said to fight for money; organized crime may play a role.

What more can you ask for? The author goes out of his way to look for nuances under the blanket generalization of the dictionary-perfect term of "insurgent".

In reality, Hitchens is blinded by his apparent predetermined judgement on this issue, and is trying way too hard to hard to find evidence.

Let's play again!

...the author of this appalling article refers in lenient terms to "the goal of ridding Iraq of an American presence, a goal that may find sympathy among Iraqis angry about poor electricity and water service and high unemployment."

Sounds convincing. Let's look at the very next paragraph in the NYT article...

"...their anti-American message has been muddied by their attacks on civilians and by the election of an Iraqi government that has not asked the Americans to leave."

Finally, let's see what the Ombudsman, Daniel Okrent, wrote this week on NYT mideast coverage:
"Some things The Times does and does not do... [and] it does not provide history lessons. A report on an assassination attempt on a Hamas leader in Gaza that kills nearby innocents will most likely mention the immediate provocation - perhaps a Palestinian attack on an Israeli settlement. But, says the angered reader, what about the murderous assault that provoked the settlement attack? And, says his aggrieved counterpart on the other side, what about the ambush that preceded the assault? And so on back to the first intifada, and then to 1973 and 1967 and 1956 and 1948 - an endless chain of regression and recrimination and pain that cannot be represented in a year, much less in a single dispatch in a single day.

Hitchens is a cry-baby. This is a 2-page article, not a 30,000 word government report. This is exactly the point made by the rest of the ombudsman's article (link above). When you find me a Journal Sentinel article that sources defense analysts, the Army War College, studies of previous insurgencies, (esp. the self-destructive insurency of communists against Greek peasents in the 1940s), etc., then, maybe, I'll reconsider.

And yes, next time I'll use email.

You worked way, way too hard on that. Which only means one thing: you are done with exams. Good job, college grad. Welcome to the wonderful word of post-undergrad reality, where the real work is done.

I think Hitchens is just objecting to indirect language. Sure, the Noah Webster approved definition of insurgent may fit, but that doesn't mean it is the best fit. It's like politically correct terms for people/groups. Yes, I can correctly be called a German/Irish-American, but how close is that to the truth? I drink a lot and occasionally listen to "Wild Colonial Boy." That hardly ties me to the ancestral homeland.

This might just be the ugliness of Legal Writing and Research coming back to me but why use "insurgent?" Why use one word when another, "terrorist," is easier to understand? Effective word choice is a part of clear and concise writing. Especially among professional writers, there is a reason for choosing one word over another.

I agree that the article in question is not the best example to cite. It's not really even a good one. But the idea here is bigger than one article because it is about the use of the word in general, over the entire war. I think the NYT and other media outlets choose the word "insurgent" just so they don't have to use the word "terrorist." Seriously, how often had you heard "insurgent" used in the press before Iraq? They needed something to call them, but what to use...

Rebel? No, legitimizes them WAY too much. Red staters would be up in arms.

Revolutionaries? Even worse. Only a mouth breather like Michael Moore would equate them with the Sons of Liberty.

Criminals? Nope, that's assuming too much. Innocent until proven guilty.

Terrorists? Hmm. Seems to fit. Why not use it? Because Iraq is not part of the War on Terror, according to a lot of people. This is our cowboy president abandoning the War on Terror to go after the guy that tried to kill his daddy, and score some oil in the process. If the NYT called them terrorists, they could not marginalize Iraq as being outside of the War on Terror.

When someone tries to include Iraq in the broad scope of the War on Terror, they get scoffed at. "There were no terrorists in Iraq before we got there" is the usual line. Which is true, if you ignore Abu Nidal, Mohammad Abbas, Abdul Rahman Yasin... Cause terrorism is only Al-Qaeda and only started on 9/11/01.

That's my view on it and I think that is what Hitchens is getting at. The NYT is doing everything it can to keep Iraq separate, keep it out of the War on Terror conversation. I really think the issue has become moot as time has passed, but it's still something to think about. And an ex-Trotskyite like Hitchens is going to be obsessed with the pickiness of langauage anyway.

It comes down to this: Why use that word? Because it is a way to avoid labelling them terrorists and legitimizing Iraq as part of the War on Terror. Insurgent is a stupid word being used to dance around the issue.

If nothing I typed made sense, cut me some slack, I'm really hung over.

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