Fighting Words

Terrorists, Dissidents, and Copy Editors

Why it matters how the media describe killers in Iraq and Ireland.

Masked youths in Northern Ireland 

I knew this would happen sooner or later. On Sunday, the New York Times Week in Review section, alluding on its second page to recent suicide attacks on Iraq police and army forces, published the following:

Though violence in Baghdad has remained fairly low by post-invasion standards, the attacks against Iraqi officers operating under fairly high security suggested a rising level of sophistication by insurgents. Officials worried that militant former Baathists were again cooperating with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a largely homegrown terrorist group.

This appeared not as “The News” but as a piece of analysis called “Behind the News.” Now, up until the present it has been the policy of the New York Times to describe the gang known as “al-Qaida in Mesopotamia” by the regular wording “a largely homegrown terrorist group that American intelligence says is foreign-led.” This cumbersome and misleading formulation was at least intended to split the difference between those who regarded AQM as an intrusion into Iraqi affairs by the Bin Ladenists and those who saw it as a local response to the coalition presence. (If you look to the language in the above paragraph, you can see this same confusion continued and even extended, in that “insurgents” are described as more “sophisticated” because they get more vicious as the American presence becomes less noticeable. Wait: Wasn’t the “insurgency” supposed to be a protest against occupation?)

The long, pedantic form of the description was also supposed to muffle the controversy over whether collusion between the Baathists and the Bin Ladenists was something that went way back, or something that was only tactically cemented by the coalition intervention. But at least this ponderous formulation expressed the ambiguity. And it preserved the paper’s neutrality in the face of pretty convincing evidence that AQM was a franchise run by outsiders in close alliance with Bin Laden himself, as well as a foreign jihadist outfit that had long availed itself of cooperation with the arsenals and the officers of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence apparatus. (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a Jordanian who came to Iraq from Afghanistan before the intervention took place.)

There could be two views about this. But now look what’s happened. The formulation has turned by rote and repetition into a mere mantra, and copy editor needs to cut a paragraph by just one line and—presto!—al-Qaida in Mesopotamia has become transformed by the journal of record, without the customary qualifications about its probable foreign leadership, into “a largely homegrown terrorist group.” Ah, yes, homegrown: a reassuringly horticultural image with likable overtones of thrift and enterprise.

Until recently, the same newspaper used to employ a description of the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland that was slightly less misleading and also somewhat more amusing. Aware of the fact that its readers knew that there were two discrepant kinds of Christianity practiced in the province, the New York Times would do its job of being strictly informative by characterizing the IRA as “overwhelmingly Catholic.” One could see what the editors were vainly trying to do—namely, to suggest that very few Ulster Protestants indeed were succumbing to the temptation to enlist in the ranks of the IRA—but the resulting image was nonetheless risible, as if someone encountering a gunman of the IRA would be first and foremost overwhelmed by his Catholicism. (Come to think of it, where was Bill Donohue of the Catholic League when this slander was being promulgated? He usually kindles into flame at much less provocation.)

But now something really depressing has happened and is spreading like weed across the media. Since the Good Friday agreement that committed the IRA to disarmament and the Republican movement to electoral politics, two small, ultraviolent nationalist factions have sworn to continue the armed struggle. In the past week, they have randomly slain members of the army and police. And it has been agreed, apparently without a discussion or an argument, to refer to these gruesome elements as dissidents.

I have consulted the final court of appeal on this, in the form of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the ruling is pretty final. All the origins of the term lie in expressions of argument and opinion, and of “dissent” from ruling systems or ideologies. There is a solitary and obscure reference, from a report in the London Times of 1955, to an obscure Vietnamese sect described as “dissident” and also as launching attacks on local Vietnamese army positions, but otherwise all the sources and authorities are unanimous: The term describes only attitudes and not actions, and it is most famously associated with the intellectual opposition to Soviet totalitarianism. (Prior to that usage, it was principally applied to those religious people of conscience who refused allegiance to the established Catholic and Episcopalian churches, which ironically would perhaps qualify the word dissident as being “overwhelmingly Protestant.”)

Plainly, something has been lost when such a historic term of honor and respect is loosely applied to homicidal thugs who shoot a Catholic policeman in the head and use pizza delivery workers as human shields. But in a media world where Bin Laden’s murderous surrogates in Iraq can be given a homely moniker, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. As a novel about the Nazi era has recently reminded us, the Furies of antiquity were so much dreaded that they were sometimes apotropaically named “the Kindly Ones,” or Eumenides.If you want a quick definition of euphemism, this would do: It consists of inventing nice terms for nasty things (perhaps to make them seem less nasty) and soft words for frightening things (perhaps to make them seem less scary). We should have learned by now that this form of dishonesty is also a form of cowardice, by which some of the enemy’s work is done for him. We have seen through propaganda terms like collateral damage and ethnic cleansing. Let us not put up with homegrown for something vile and alien, or the abuse of the moral term dissident for something that is both cruel and coercive.