Sunday, 25 March 2007

Doublespeak in the Oratory of G.W. Bush

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. George Orwell

Countless examples of doublespeak (1) have invaded our daily vocabulary and became an ordinary part of it; these examples usually find their way to the public through their constant use by the media and public political speakers. Among this phrasing we can find ‘collateral damage’ for innocent bystander deaths or injuries, ‘friendly fire’ for death caused by mistaken shooting of one’s own allies, ‘defence’ for war as in the Department of Defence, moreover, we usually hear ‘incontinent ordnance’ for accidental bombarding of civilians or schools, and ‘ethical cleansing’ for genocide, etc. Using such meaningless phrases perfectly fits in Orwell’s analysis of their use:
Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. (Politics and the English language: 12)

Sometimes truth can spring out from a photo, and speak for itself. It can say things that can be comprehended by all. However, what is ironic about the whole matter is that describing the photo in words can indeed be misleading. Talking about the horrifying torture that happened in Abo-Ghraib Prison in Iraq, one would think that these photos are taken from a Hollywood horror movie. But never would it come to the mind that they are real pictures of Iraqis imprisoned by the American heroic liberators who came to free the Iraqis from villains and tyrants, as they always claim. Although, the matter does not seem to be open for interpretation, as the photos clearly show an act of torture, the American leaders seem to hold another view. In political terminology, nothing is certain and everything is open for interpretation, as political words are elastic by nature. President Bush describes this incident as follows:
The American people were horrified by the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. These acts were wrong. They were inconsistent with our policies and our values as a Nation. I have directed a full accounting for the abuse of the Abu Ghraib detainees, and investigations are underway to review detention operations in Iraq and elsewhere. (June 26, 2004: President's Statement on the U.N. International Day in Support of Victims of Torture)

The calculated use of the generic term ‘abuse’ instead of the severer term ‘torture’ is made in order to create a less significant image of a wrong behaviour. We can easily notice how the speaker chooses a lighter word that does not create such a brutal mental image, as the word ‘torture’ would have done. What is actually done here is belittling the subject into a trivial unintentional mistake done by an exceptionally lawless bad soldier; this mistake does not represent an attitude or policy of the administration, but only a circumvention of an individual. The speaker is presenting us with a stark example of doublespeak, as he intends to avoid the responsibility of dealing with the consequences of an act of torture, while ‘abuse’ would only seem tolerable.

His use of the definite tone in ‘these acts were wrong’ implies firmness and finality. This tone is used as a complement of the same sequence, as it shows the speakers undoubted attitude about the unpleasant incident, and thus it leaves no chance for condemning him with its responsibility. As a result, the government leaders will come out clean from the whole matter, and will look honest and peace - loving despite the blood that still stains their hands.

The word ‘detainees’ also presents a less serious impact than ‘prisoners’, as the first implies temporary confinement. Accordingly, the doublespeak of the orator is an act of thought corruption, as it aims at concealing and twisting the truth. The American crime done in Abo Ghraib is a proof of the fear and not the hope brought by the Americans.

The two terms ‘terrorist’ and ‘freedom fighter’ can be said to be nearly synonymous, as both terms mean armed political rebel or fighter. However, the irony that envelops the use of these two terms is emphasised by the fact that ‘terrorist’ is used for the bad guy; the one fighting against us, while a ‘freedom fighter’ is the good guy, as he is one of us or fighting with us.
Terrorists who attack a self-governing Iraq are showing us and the Iraqis who they really are. They're not fighting foreign forces; they're fighting the Iraqi people. They're not just enemies of America; they're enemies of democracy and hope. They're enemies of a peaceful future in Iraq. As Prime Minister Allawi of Iraq said last week, "Anyone involved in these attacks is nothing more than a traitor to the cause of Iraq's freedom and the freedom of its people." He went on to say, "These are not freedom fighters. They are terrorists and foreign fighters opposed to our very survival as a free state." The Prime Minister and I share the same resolve. (June 16, 2004 President Salutes the Military at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa)

The president is talking about the hope brought by the Americans, which turned out to be murder, torture and imprisonment of any person suspected of patriotic feelings. The American law in prohibits the Iraqi citizens to fight against the concurring forces, thus these rebels are labelled as terrorists not just against America but also against America’s vision of Iraq.

MacDill (2) is the home of the U.S. Central Command. The Command was activated in the early 1980s. Back then, America needed CENTCOM (3) to help protect our allies from aggression and to support Afghan freedom fighters. (ibid)
What is ironic about this excerpt is who is here being named as freedom fighters. The Afghan freedom fighters are Osama Bin Laden’s group who were then fighting against the Soviets. At this time, United States’ biggest enemy was the other global force; the USSR. Accordingly, the fighters in Afghanistan were supported as they had a mutual enemy. The same people are now called terrorists, because it is now a new era. The change of interests has also changed the label from one opposite to the other.

Our soldiers, working with the Bosnian government, seized terrorists who were plotting to bomb our embassy. (State of the Union: 2002)
The only reason that the group responsible for calculating the embassy’s bombarding is being labelled as terrorists is that they are working against the United States. They are on the other side, so they are terrorists.

Our military has put the terror training camps of Afghanistan out of business, yet camps still exist in at least a dozen countries. A terrorist underworld -- including groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad … -- operates in remote jungles and deserts, and hides in the centers of large cities. (State of the Union 2002)
You have to share the same perspective of the speaker in order to see that all the groups mentioned here deserve to be called terrorists. However, if you are not on the same side, then you can see that they are freedom fighters struggling against an evil mighty power that is Israel, which is occupying their land destroying their homes and killing hundreds of their people everyday. You will find that there is no shame in what they are doing; on the contrary, it is a patriotic act. Therefore, it all depends on where you stand and on whose side. Doublespeak prospers when liberators are seen through the eyes of invaders.

In fact, such labels gain authority from the one who uses these labels. Such phrases do not describe an inner attribute of the one holding this label, but they express the speaker’s own perspective and the way he wants others to think about and evaluate that person or group. Accordingly, governmental official speakers, especially the most powerful speaker: the president, play the leading role in determining the identity of the terrorist, which leads us to the notion that “speaking is governing”. Steven Livingston argues that:
The power to shape perceptions of violent events and their principal actors (both perpetrators and victims) usually rests not with the terrorists but with government official. Who the terrorists are in the first place is a question largely determined by these officials. Those who have routine access to the mass media, those to whom reporters turn when the dust settles and shooting stops, have the ability to shape coverage and perceptions. (Quoted in Silberstein: 2002: 3).
Therefore, it would only be appropriate to think about what the Americans are doing in Iraq from a different perspective than the one they are claiming. Let us see things from the other side for a change. According to the United States Department of Defence, terrorism can be defined as: the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological. ( Next, we are going to witness how a different stand of what is being said can lead to a different understanding. The coming excerpts will try to prove how the American doings in Iraq can be considered an act of terrorism according to their own definition of the term.

Today, we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime. With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians. No device of man can remove the tragedy from war; yet it is a great moral advance when the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent. (May, 1, 2003: President Bush Announces Major Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended Remarks by the President from the USS Abraham Lincoln)
This excerpt is one example out of many others that state the tactical use of force to dispose of the Iraqi government. Therefore, the Americans have themselves fulfilled the first rule of carrying out a terrorist act: the calculated use of violence …intended to coerce or to intimidate government or society. Of course, the motive declared by the US officials is to free Iraq from the dictator, however, they chose to end the Iraqi tragedy by the introduction of a new kind of tragedy; invasion. Therefore, the Iraqis are now free from a tyrant, but are captives in the hands of their new leaders and invaders. The sentence: “no device of… from war” is very intriguing due to the fact that it implies the accidental loss of civilians in this act of war, which according to the speaker can be justified by a nobler aim; a known Machiavellian law.

We have difficult work to do in Iraq. We're bringing order to parts of that country that remain dangerous. We're pursuing and finding leaders of the old regime… We've begun the search for hidden chemical and biological weapons and already know of hundreds of sites that will be investigated. We're helping to rebuild Iraq…And we will stand with the new leaders of Iraq as they establish a government …We are committed to freedom in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in a peaceful Palestine. The advance of freedom is the surest strategy to undermine the appeal of terror in the world. (ibid)

As has been said before, the label of ‘terrorist’ is now an American trademark that is given to anyone who stands in the way. The American president classifies the world into two groups: with or against. Accordingly, the parts in Iraq that remains dangerous are the parts where Iraqi rebels have chosen to stand in the way of the invader. Therefore, it would only seem inevitable to get rid of any voice asking for a real freedom that is not presented by the Americans, so at first these voices must be labelled as terrorists in order to fit in the scheme. Consequently, the Iraqi resistance of the US intrusion is not tolerated by the Americans, who chose to intimidate the society after the coup d’etat.

A second point raised by this excerpt is one of the political reasons behind the war; the elimination of any opportunity of possessing a nuclear power that would threaten the American domination of the world. A final point is implementing the American vision of the Middle East and the Moslem world at first in Iraq and then Afghanistan, and Palestine. The modern Iraq is being built according to American standards, with a new federal government that would play its role designed in accordance with the American vision. An ideological aim springs out here; the American government is scheming to shape the lives of other nations, specifically in Iraq, in a way that serves their strategic interests. The word ‘freedom’ in the concluding remark of the excerpt can be taken to mean voluntary compliance if we wish to see the other side of the coin: Compliance would undermine rebellion. Therefore, compliance is the safest ground for avoiding the terrorist’s label.

As we have seen the American forces in Iraq have fulfilled all the conditions that represent an act of terrorism. They have used calculated force to overthrow a governing regime, intimidated fear and violence among civilians, and invaded a country for political and ideological reasons. Seeing things from a different angle can lead to other types of labelling that symbolizes the ideologies and perceptions of the speaker or the view holder, and may not perfectly portray the truth. Difference in opinion, beliefs, and interests can create a fertile soil for label exchange.

Silberstein, Sandra (2002) War of Words – Language, Politics and 9/11. London: Routledge.
Orwell, G. (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four. London, Martin Secker & Warburg.
Orwell, George (1946) Politics and the English Language.
Lakoff, George (1991) Metaphors in Politics.

(1) Doublespeak is a kind of euphemism that is associated with typical phrases used in the political arena as a way of avoiding mental associations.
(2) Air Force Base in Florida.
(3) United States Central Command: is a Unified Combatant Command unit of the U.S. armed forces, under the operational control of the U.S. Secretary of Defense. (

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