The Power of Words

I hadn’t quite had enough coffee to drink when I glanced at my Twitter feed on Monday morning. Had I been at least through my first cup, I think I would have realized more quickly that everyone was commenting on the events of Sunday evening in which President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed by American forces.

Eventually, the concept sunk in. I took time to digest it, not commenting or tweeting or updating statuses until I had unpacked the event a bit. I listened to some analysis from the BBC, and read some more from the New York Times.  I read about the spontaneous gatherings at Ground Zero and in Washington D.C. of those cheering and singing the national anthem, and since then I’ve seen some of the more grotesque and uncivilized images and magazine covers that had bin Laden’s head rammed through by the Statue of Liberty’s torch as though on a pike (with all of the gore involved), or wishing him eternal damnation in large fonts. America is really, really good at getting caught up in mindless frenzies. Blame it on the overconfident knowledge that we have what is likely the most powerful military in the world. Many Americans don’t seem to care what the rest of the world thinks of them, or to take the rest of the world into much consideration…much to the chagrin of those of us who think more broadly.

My conclusion about the assassination of bin Laden is that celebrating victory in a war isn’t an appropriate thing to do, that we shouldn’t be dancing in the streets because we’ve successfully killed someone in the pursuit of justice. Just because someone loses a war, in no way means that anyone has won a war. Even eschewing pacifism as Bonhoeffer momentarily did in recognizing that great enough evils can exist to warrant warfare…to enter into the theological concept of a “just war”…involves recognizing that this is a grim task, one to be undertaken with solemnity, and even sadness, but never with jubilation.

My other concern from this historic event is the assumption by many that this brings closure to the horrific events of September 11, 2001. Despite a silent omission, or overt claim to the contrary, by government officials, the visceral reaction I sense from much of the media coverage is that this brings the war, or at least a major portion of the war, to a close. I fear this is inaccurate, not only because of tactical considerations that have been reported, but because there’s a larger issue at play, and that issue is a domestic, and historical, one.

Words have power, and the rhetoric of national leaders carry implications that can alter history. The war in which the U.S. and its allies have been engaged for nearly 10 years now, however you may feel about how just it may or may not be, has been tainted with erroneous rhetoric by former president George W. Bush that was simply not thought through as well as it should have been. The erroneous rhetoric that I fear will plague our country for some time to come occurred when Bush declared this to be “the war on terror.” The rest of the world has adopted this rhetoric…it is now solidified. I think that solidification will do much more harm than we could have imagined, because one cannot declare war on an ideology and ever hope to win. Should a country declare war on another country, an organization, or even an individual, then that effort will ultimately either succeed or fail, depending upon whether or not the target of that warfare is removed as threat, as bin Laden has just been. Ideologies do not die as quickly or as easily, if they die at all. They tend to multiply, spreading ideas with the fervor of the misled, far more contagious than nationalism or patriotism, and far more infectious should they be evil, as terrorism obviously is. In declaring this to be a “war on terror,” Bush essentially assured that it is a war that will never be successful, because the enemy will always change its shape and reappear in new forms. Unless we alter this rhetoric, unless we call this war something different and back down until such a new concept can take hold, we will be trapped in perpetual bloodshed that will be without end, only moving between varying degrees of victory and defeat, always without significant closure.

Constant warfare leads not only to the deaths of thousands of human beings, but also to the deaths of cultures, of ways of life, of intelligence, of language, of art. Continued warfare is something that no one wants, and to which we all have a right to call for an end. Rhetorical steps, of the kind that guide nations such as ours from our leaders’ lips, must be taken to ensure that the war in which we’ve been engaged begins to draw to an end with the death of bin Laden.

Otherwise, our children’s children of generations to come will be unable to recall a time in their lives when our country has not been at war.

I’d like to have entitled this post “And So It Ends.” I think I could have more likely entitled it, “And So It Goes.”

Photo Attribution: Rick