Doublespeak in the War on Terror
by Timothy Lynch
September 10, 2006.
Editor's note: Following is an excerpt from a Cato Institute white
paper on the Bush administration's use of propaganda to advance its
anti-terror agenda. Timothy Lynch, an analyst at the Libertarian
think-tank, wrote the paper, presented here in an edited form.
Five years have passed since the catastrophic terrorist attacks of
Sept. 11, 2001. Those attacks ushered in the war on terror. Since some
high-ranking government officials and pundits are now referring to the
war on terror as the "Long War" or "World War III," because its
duration is not clear, now is an appropriate time to take a few steps
back and examine the disturbing new vocabulary that has emerged from
One of the central insights of George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen
Eighty-Four concerned the manipulative use of language, which he
called "newspeak" and "doublethink," and which we now call
"doublespeak" and "Orwellian."
That novel tells the story of a totalitarian state in which government
agents monitor all aspects of citizens' lives. The three doublespeak
slogans of the state are seen on posters everywhere: 1. War Is Peace;
2. Freedom Is Slavery; 3. Ignorance Is Strength.
By corrupting the language, the people who wield power are able to
fool the others about their activities and evade responsibility and
accountability. Professor William Lutz, author of The New Doublespeak,
notes: "Doublespeak is language that pretends to communicate but
really doesn't. It is language that makes the bad seem good, the
negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least
tolerable. Doublespeak is language that avoids or shifts
responsibility, language that is at variance with its real or
purported meaning. It is language that conceals or prevents thought;
rather than extending thought, doublespeak limits it."
It is true, of course, that dishonesty has always been a part of the
human experience, but doublespeak is a pernicious variation of
dishonesty. Doublespeak perverts the basic function of language, which
is to facilitate a common understanding between human beings.
After 9/11, lobbyists and politicians quickly recognized that the best
way to secure legislative approval for a spending proposal is to
package the idea as a "homeland security" measure even if the
expenditure has nothing to do with our national defense. Here are few
examples of "homeland security" spending:
$250,000 will be spent by city officials in Newark, N.J., for
air-conditioned garbage trucks.
$557,400 will be spent on communications equipment by town officials
in North Pole, Alaska.
$100,000 will be spent by the city government of the District of
Columbia to send sanitation workers to Dale Carnegie classes.
According to government officials, the classes will help sanitation
workers develop the skills that will be necessary to deal with panicky
customers in the aftermath of a disaster.
$900,000 will be spent on the Steamship Authority in Massachusetts,
which runs ferries to Martha's Vineyard. When asked about the hefty
expenditure, the local harbormaster confessed, "Quite honestly, I
don't know what we're going to do, but you don't turn down grant money."
During the 2004 presidential election debate, President Bush told a
nationwide TV audience to "forget about all this talk about a draft.
We're not going to have a draft so long as I am the president."
To evaluate the accuracy of that statement, one must pay careful
attention to the word "draft," for, as the economist Thomas Sowell
once observed, "All statements are true, if you are free to redefine
Shortly after 9/11, President Bush declared a "national emergency" and
simultaneously authorized Pentagon officials to issue "stop-loss" orders.
A stop-loss order means that members of the military may not leave the
service, even if they have fulfilled the terms of their enlistment
contract. Once a stop-loss order is issued, an individual's duty
status changes from voluntary service to involuntary service. Although
the legality of the stop-loss orders has been upheld by the judiciary,
those orders have clearly changed the nature of military service for
National security letters
Government officials cannot deny the fact that the U.S. Constitution
places limits on the power to search and seize private property. To
bypass those limits, the government argues that the Constitution
limits only the way in which "warrants" can be issued and executed. If
the government uses another document and gives it an official-sounding
name like, say, "national security letter," voila, the constitutional
limitations on the search powers of the government no longer apply.
The Fourth Amendment provides, "The right of the people to be secure
in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable
searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no warrants shall
issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and
particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or
things to be seized." It is important to note that the Fourth
Amendment does not ban all governmental efforts to search and seize
private property, but it does limit the power of the police to seize
whatever they want, whenever they want.
The American prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been a
frequent target of criticism because of Bush administration policies
concerning the detention and treatment of prisoners. Whatever one may
think about those detention and treatment policies, it is clear that
the U.S. military has employed doublespeak to describe events at
"Self-injurious behavior incidents" is the Pentagon's phrase for
suicide attempts by prisoners, for example.
And when three men hanged themselves in their cells, the camp
commander, Rear Adm. Harry Harris, went so far as to say that the
suicides were "an act of asymmetrical warfare" against the American
Warfare? A terrorist engages in asymmetrical warfare when he straps
explosives to his body and then detonates the bomb when he gets close
to his human targets.
But if "warfare" is stretched so far as to include an enemy's taking
his own life, it is difficult to identify what actions a prisoner
might engage in that would not constitute warfare.
Before 9/11, few people were familiar with an obscure federal statute
that pertains to material witnesses. That law was designed to allow
the police to secure a potential witness' testimony in situations
where the individual witness seems likely to ignore a summons and flee
The material witness law allows the police to incarcerate such
witnesses without charging them with a crime. After 9/11, the
government abused the material witness law by locking up persons whom
it suspected of wrongdoing but for whom it lacked probable cause to
charge them with a crime.
By "evading the requirement of probable cause of criminal conduct, the
government bypassed checks on the reasonableness of its suspicion."
Since the war on terrorism began, government officials have invoked
"national security" to justify countless actions. Most of those
invocations were probably appropriate, but others were a stretch, and
some were plainly bogus. When the American Civil Liberties Union
brought a legal challenge to a certain section of the Patriot Act, the
U.S. Justice Department claimed the litigation was so sensitive that
government censors had to be able to redact portions of all the legal
papers, including the ACLU's legal briefs, so that "national security"
would not be jeopardized. That sounded plausible, but the censors
blacked out material that had nothing to do with
intelligence-gathering "sources and methods." The censors went so far
as to try to black out a quotation from a previously published U.S.
Supreme Court ruling.
Fortunately, a federal judge rejected that move by the censors.
Critics properly lambasted the government for having the chutzpah to
try to suppress a quote about the "danger of abuse" from a court
document, as if the mere expression of that idea posed some sort of
"threat" to the country. When asked to explain the government's
actions, Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller declined to comment.
Americans must recognize these odious tactics for what they are and
remain vigilant about our constitution and individual liberty. Too
many people seem to think that the Constitution will automatically
check the government from overstepping its authority and running amok.
That simply is not true. The Constitution is incapable of enforcing
itself. The ultimate limit on the power of government has always been
the patience of the people. As Judge Learned Hand warned many years
ago, "Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; [if] it dies there,
no constitution, no law, no court can save it."
Timothy Lynch is director of the Cato Institute's Project on Criminal
Justice and coauthor of "Power Surge: The Constitutional Record of
George W. Bush,".
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