Tuesday, March 29, 2005
For the last few years we have been ruled by lexicographers. Never has an administration spent so much time creating, defining, or redefining terms, perhaps because no one (since George Orwell) has grasped the power and possibility that lay hidden in plain sight in the naming and renaming of words. In a sense, our post-9/11 moment began with two definitions: The Bush administration named our global enemy "terrorism" and called the acts that followed a "war," which was soon given the moniker "the global war on terror" (later reduced to the acronym GWOT, also known as World War IV), which was then given an instant future – being defined as a "generational struggle" that was still to come. All this, along with "war" itself, was simply announced rather than officially "declared."
Given that we were (by administration definition) at war, it should have been self-evident that those we captured in our "war" on terrorism would then be "prisoners of war," but no such luck for them, since their rights would in that case have been clearly defined in international treaties signed by the United States. So the Bush administration opened its Devil's Dictionary and came up with a new, tortured term for our new prisoners, "unlawful combatants," which really stood for: We can do anything we want to you in a place of our choosing. For that place, they then chose Guantanamo, an American base in Cuba (which they promptly defined as within "Cuban sovereignty" for the purposes of putting our detention camps beyond the purview of American courts or Congress, but within Bush administration sovereignty – the sole kind that counted with them – for the purposes of the Cubans).
In this way, we moved from a self-declared generational war against a method of making war to a world of torture beyond the reach of, or even sight of, the law in a place that (until the Supreme Court recently ruled otherwise) more or less didn't exist. All this was then supported by a world of pretzeled language constantly being reshaped in the White House Counsel's office, the Justice Department, and the Pentagon so that reality would have no choice but to comply with the names given it.