Doublespeak in the War on Terror

September 10, 2006 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Chicago Sun‐​Times on 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 this conflict.

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.

Homeland security

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.”

Not conscription

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 their terms.”

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 many soldiers.

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.

Asymmetrical warfare

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 Guantanamo.

“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 military.

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.

Material witness

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 jurisdiction.

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.”

National security

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.”

About the Author
Tim Lynch
Adjunct Scholar and Former Director, Project on Criminal Justice