When Language Grows Darker and Darker
Posted Aug 23, 2005

When Language Grows Darker and Darker

by Joan Chittister
“Language,” John Stuart Mill wrote, “is the light of the mind.” Right—and sometimes it is its darkness, too. This may well be one of those times.

USA Today, for instance, carried an innocuous little article this week about Pope Benedict XVI. They did it in one of those tiny sidebar articles that newspapers use to make us all aware either of the depths of the mundane to which we as a species have sunk or to send an ominous first signal of impending but invisible doom.

It seems that Pope Benedict, in what has become for popes a regular Sunday public audience, prayed for God to “stop the murderous hands of terrorists.” What’s more, he made specific reference to the “abhorrent terrorist attacks in Egypt, Britain, Turkey and Iraq.”

Such bidding prayers may seem innocent enough to the average Catholic. We are, after all, accustomed to the recitation of random and relatively apolitical petitions in the midst of public prayer.

To the Israeli ear, however, the prayer was both alarming and insulting. Here was a German pope who had failed—refused?—to include in the list of innocents lost in the maelstrom of global bombings Israelis who had also been killed in recent weeks by Palestinian suicide bombers. In fact, so major was the omission in the minds of Israeli officials that the Vatican’s envoy to Israel got called in and told so, clearly, firmly and without putting a lot of protocol between the envoy and the message. This pope, Israel said, had “deliberately failed” to include the Jews among the ranks of those murderously targeted.

USA Today reports that the pope responded to the diplomatic correction by direct mail within days of the rebuke, explaining that his intention had been simply to draw attention to incidents of more recent—and, presumably, less constant—occurrence.

Frankly, I sympathized with the pope. I feel certain that the omission was not intentional. This was not a Catholic-Jewish, German-Jewish “thing.” In the first place, those days are long gone, and furthermore, everything this pope has done in regard to the Jewish situation in the first three months of this papacy has been both sensitive and immediate. His first invitation and political outreach, in fact, was to the Jewish rabbis and community of Rome, a long-time historical measure of Catholic-Jewish relations.

No, the situation is much more complex than that. The question is how to recognize the cast of characters in this world of blurred boundaries and doubtful definitions. Who are we really praying for when we pray these days? Who are we really talking about as we describe the world to one another.

I do believe, however, that this very incident unmasks the issue with which we are all dealing right now. It may even hint to why foreign policies, political platforms and even personal postures are so difficult to shape these days, so impervious to solution, so agonizing to discuss.

If truth were told, we seldom, if ever, even presume to talk about it very directly. Patriotism, Patriot Acts, Americanism, politics and all those things get in the way, it seems. The very thought of open discussion of the subject of language as obfuscation is enough to get a person called a traitor—or, worse, these days, it seems—a liberal.

What may be even more to the point, most people are not conscious of the problem. Few people outside the academic types who focus on the effect of language on public opinion would quite be able to name it—even if they dared.

It is the words and our shifting, sliding, slippery definitions of them that confuse us.

The truth is that most thinking people aren’t really sure what a terrorist is. And the language just keeps getting messier and messier by the day.

What, after all, is the discernible difference between a “terrorist,” an “insurgent,” a “freedom fighter,” an “enemy combatant,” and—the new governmental words for it—“a global extremist.” How would you tell one from the other if they were all coming down the alley at you?

I can understand it if you tell me that a terrorist is someone who for no discernible political or public reason at all simply determines to create havoc in a country for the sake of enjoying the chaos that bombs in subway trains will surely cause. But is that what’s going on? Have these people really “no discernible reason” beyond some kind of social pathology to explain their actions?

I get it if by “insurgent” you mean somebody who rises up to challenge a legitimate government in a stable nation. But is that what is happening in Iraq where one government invaded another “with no discernible reason”? Who is the terrorist, everyone who resists the incursion or those who planned it in the first place?

I know that “enemy combatants” are some kind of military personnel who are engaged in military combat for the sake of their legitimate government, in its employ, in the service of that national system, or in fulfillment of their duties as citizens.

But when you start distinguishing one from the other of these—terrorists from insurgents from military personnel—according to the side they’re on, to whether they’re on our side or somebody else’s side—I admit to moments of confusion.

Is someone who resists invasion or foreign domination on behalf of his country and beyond or outside of legitimate government channels really a “terrorist.” And if that’s the case, what does that say about the French Underground in World War II or the Minutemen in New England before the signing of the U.S. Constitution?

Are insurgents people who simply won’t quit when beaten, like the Vietnamese, for instance, who defeated both the French and the United States with citizen armies rather than properly organized armed forces?

Why were the mujahideen and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and the guerilla fighters in Latin America “freedom fighters” when they were on our side and terrorists when they were not?

Are the suicide bombers in Palestine and the army in Israel opposing military forces, one armed and one not, or is one legitimate and the other a terrorist organization?

From where I stand, the language seems to me to be getting darker and darker. But until we know who is who and what is what, how can a pope decide when to put them in the prayers or not? And most of all, how can the world decide to whose cries of real outrage and carnage to listen, which wars are really “just” anymore and which are not, which policies of the high and mighty are either “high” or “mighty”?

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society. She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

?2005 The National Catholic Reporter

Originally published in The National Caholic Reporter at http://www.ncronline.org/