Monday, September 23, 2013

words matter, part 1

That's right, I have so much to say I'm being merciful to my four readers and splitting into two posts.

Words matter. A lot. The words we use contribute to the reality we experience. In some instances, our words even create that reality.

We have become a people who are sloppy with words. We speak and write with unclarity, walking in circles until we've said nearly everything and nothing at the same time.

But sometimes we use words with perfect clarity, and that can be even more disturbing.

Case in point: here are two quotes from news stories from the past week.

1. "While we're not ruling anything out, we do not suspect terrorism."
2. "Dozens killed in a terror attack at Kenyan mall."

The first quote is what was said repeatedly about the shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington DC. The second, obviously, is the characterization of the tragedy at the big "new" mall in Nairobi. Both are mass shootings involving more than one gunman. Both were planned and carried out by people who intended to create fear even as they killed as many people as possible.

In other words: they are both terrorism. They were actions meant to create terror.

But we have relegated the word "terrorism" to mean "something foreigners do (to us)" and generally those foreigners are of darker skin tone--only rarely do we classify a light skinned person as a terrorist, and then only if they use a bomb. We have forgotten that the meaning of terrorism is "an act designed to instill fear."

And worse: somewhere along the way, we Americans decided that a mass shooting does not qualify for terrorism. (at least not when it happens here)
Maybe this is because they are so common and we don't want to believe we live in a place plagued with terrorism.
Maybe this is because there are powerful people and many dollars behind the gun lobby, and we don't want to create the impression that gun violence is on par with "real terrorism."

Whatever the case, the two news stories this week--news stories of shocking similarity in other respects--highlight that words matter, and we use them on purpose to create a particular reality. In this case, one shooting is essentially just another in a long line of regrettable but unstoppable tragedies, while another is the target of a multi-trillion-dollar war. Guess which one involved brown people?

I wish I believed that this was evidence of poor use of language, but I think it is evidence of the opposite: very intentional use of language designed to ensure that we remain in our bubble of exceptionalism, where we don't have to deal with the shortcomings of our society as it currently exists.

The people at the Navy Yard, and their families, were terrorized. The people in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, where 13 people (including a 3 year old) were shot during a basketball game at the neighborhood park this week, were terrorized. The people of Newtown were terrorized. The people of Aurora CO were terrorized. I could go on (sadly).

The people of our nation are being terrorized every day. Perhaps if we called it what it is, there'd be some action to change?


  1. Perhaps so. These actions are indeed terrible - and instill terror. Peace be with you, friend.

  2. I am so upset about all of this that I can almost not hold myself still. I can't write about it at all. I am grateful that you can, and that you write words that speak some of what I am trying to say.

    Saturday, I went to the neighborhood Kroger Signature grocery store and it was closed. What!? The signs in front said "Power Outage." What!? I immediately thought of terrorists, and that breaks my heart.

  3. I had a conversation with my 13 year old daughter about her fears that we could be victims of chemical sprays, like those used in Syria. I found myself trying to reassure her but I couldn’t. I could not assure her that this will never happen here because these things do happen here. She knows that. That is why she is fearful. Terrorized in fact.

    Pretty certain you have more than four readers.

  4. We were in the Verizon store yesterday, hoping to look at iPhones. As one person finished at the display, another passed us to get to them first. He had a gun belt on, and I murmured to kzj, "I guess I won't insist on going first." As I backed up a little, she said, "He's a police officer."

  5. Well said. I am so overwhelmed by what is happening in our nation and our world that I don't know HOW to put it into words. Thanks for this.