September 23, 2001
Words of the War on Terror
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
The first draft of President Franklin Roosevelt’s request to Congress for a declaration of war began, ‘‘Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in world history.’’ In his second draft, he crossed out ‘‘world history’’ and substituted a condemnatory word that was far more memorable: infamy.
Though its adjective, infamous, was frequently used, the noun infamy was less familiar. It means ‘‘evil fame, shameful repute, notorious disgrace’’ and befitted the nation’s shock at the bloody destruction at Pearl Harbor, a successful surprise blow that was instantly characterized by the victim nation as a ‘‘sneak attack.’’
The word, with its connotation of wartime shock and horror, was chosen by headline writers to label the terrorist attack on New York and Washington that demolished the twin towers of the World Trade Center and a portion of the Pentagon. In newspapers and on television, the historical day of infamy was the label chosen, along with the more general ‘‘attack on America.’’
The killers were hijackers. This Americanism, origin unknown, was first cited in 1912 as to kick up high jack, which Dialect Notes defined as ‘‘to cause a disturbance’’; 10 years later, a book about hobos noted ‘‘hi-jacking, or robbing men at night when sleeping in the jungles.’’ In the 1960’s, as terrorists began seizing control of airliners, the verb skyjack was coined but has since fallen into disuse.
The suicidal hijackers were able to slip a new weapon through the metal detectors: a box cutter, defined in the on-top-of-the-news New Oxford American Dictionary (to be published next month) as ‘‘a thin, inexpensive razor-blade knife designed to open cardboard boxes.’’ Barbara Olson, a passenger aboard the airliner doomed to be crashed into the Pentagon, was able to telephone her husband, Solicitor General Ted Olson; she told him that the hijackers were armed with knives and what she called a cardboard cutter.
These terrorists were suicide bombers, a phrase used in a 1981 Associated Press dispatch by Tom Baldwin in Lebanon about the driving of an explosives-laden car into the Iraqi Embassy. In 1983, Newsweek reported that ‘‘the winds of fanaticism have blown up a merciless throng of killers: the assassins, thugs, kamikazes — and now the suicide bombers.’’
Kamikaze is Japanese for ‘‘divine wind,’’ a reference to a storm in the 13th century that blew away a fleet of invading Mongols. In World War II, the word described suicidal pilots who dived their planes into enemy ships. English has now absorbed the word: Al Hunt of The Wall Street Journal wrote last week that airline policy ‘‘was turned upside down by these kamikaze fanatics.’’
Hunt, like President Bush and many others, called these acts of murder-suicide cowardly. That is not a modifier I would use, nor would I employ its synonym dastardly (though F.D.R. did), which also means ‘‘shrinking from danger.’’ If anything, the suicide bomber or suicide hijacker is maniacally fearless, the normal human survival instinct overwhelmed by hatred or brainwashed fervor. Senseless and mindless are other mistaken modifiers of these killings: the sense, or evil purpose, of modern barbaric murder is to carry out a blindly worshiped leader’s desire to shock, horrify and ultimately intimidate the target’s civilized compatriots.
Another word that deserves a second look is justice. Both Senator John McCain and the Bush adviser Karen Hughes called for ‘‘swift justice ’’ to be meted out to the perpetrators, ordinarily a sentiment widely shared. But the columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote: ‘‘There should be no talk of bringing these people to ‘swift justice.’ . . . An open act of war demands a military response, not a judicial one.’’
The leading suspect at the center of the terror campaign is Osama bin Laden. The bin, meaning ‘‘son of,’’ is not capped; Westerners have chosen not to capitalize the Arabic just as they have often chosen to capitalize the Hebrew Ben, which has the same meaning. This has nothing to do with correctness; it is strictly idiosyncratic convention, varying among regions and stylists. (When starting a sentence with bin Laden’s name, Times style calls for capitalizing it, which then looks like a mistake.) Bin Laden has been given a shorthand, bogus title, much like vice overlord, fugitive financier and drug kingpin: his is terrorist mastermind.
The name of his organization, al-Qaeda, means ‘‘the base,’’ in looser modern Arabic, ‘‘the military headquarters.’’ His host in Afghanistan is the Taliban, a religio-political group whose name means ‘‘those who seek.’’ The Arab word talib, ‘‘student,’’ has been given a Persian suffix, an, which is an unusual amalgam or was a mistake.
The Taliban (proper noun construed as plural) harbor bin Laden and the base of his organization. That is now becoming a political verb with a vengeance.
‘‘We will make no distinction,’’ President Bush said, ‘‘between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.’’ A key sense of the verb to harbor is ‘‘to give shelter and concealment to wrongdoers.’’ The next day, Bush used the noun form creatively: ‘‘This is an enemy that thinks its harbors are safe, but they won’t be safe forever.’’ That was an extension of the noun’s present meaning of ‘‘place of shelter, haven, port’’ to ‘‘place where evildoers think they are out of reach of punishment.’’
Finally, the word terrorist. It is rooted in the Latin terrere, ‘‘to frighten,’’ and the -ist was coined in France to castigate the perpetrators of the Reign of Terror. Edmund Burke in 1795 defined the word in English: ‘‘Those hell-hounds called terrorists . . . are let loose on the people.’’
The sternly judgmental word should not be avoided or euphemized. Nobody can accurately call those who plotted, financed and carried out the infamous mass slaughter of Sept. 11 militants, resistance fighters, gunmen, partisans or guerrillas. The most precise word to describe a person or group who murders even one innocent civilian to send a political message is terrorist.Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company