How Terror Strikes at Language

Philippe-Joseph Salazar—

Security agencies fail us each time a terror attack takes place –while their collective failure to act on intelligence is balanced by the personal bravery of citizens, first responders, and police. But there is a worse failure, which goes unnoticed in the outpouring of emotions, denunciations and verbal grandstanding: Words fail us after each terror attack. Terror strikes at language. The politicians’ range of words to qualify a terror attack is infantile stammer: “deranged and horrible”, “horrific” and time-honored “cowardly”, “senseless”. Celebrities are “shaking,” they say “f***,” and are “devastated” because it is “tragic”.

Language has been reduced to infantile lines on a teleprompter read by actors in a national sitcom called “Terror in New York”.

Now, what does the public ask of politicians, celebrities, and public commentators? To play the role of interpreters. Politicians get elected for it, and actors are paid for “screening history” as Gore Vidal famously said. As for the media, it is their job. In essence, all are public interpreters. The public turns to them for explaining stuff or at least to phrase events in a way that provides the public, otherwise busy with earning their daily keep, with some overall meaning. The public says, “Help us make sense of it all.” So, while victims of terrorism are fighting for their lives, or being mourned, they become victims of the lamentable incapacity of politicians, media, and celebrities to use words that matter when terror strikes.

Public figures, politicians, comedians, and Twitterers should exert a linguistic duty of self-surveillance, a civic duty to observe what used to be called in the Christian tradition “the government of the tongue”. When opinion makers characterize terror attacks with such infantile, repetitive, and cliché words, they do not make an argument and they do not fulfill their function, which is to educate the wider public.  It is a grave failure to qualify a terror attack as “deranged, insane, tragic, horrific,” or as Chancellor Merkel put it “intolerable” without explaining why those Muslims who commit attacks, and care little for their lives and earthly matters, consider their actions as moral acts of courage and a devotional duty toward the re-establishment of a Caliphate. It suffices to access the vast e-library set up on the Internet by the Islamic State to see for ourselves how sophisticated, literary, and well argued are their viewpoint and worldview. They are not monosyllabic. Our public interpreters are, and their failure has three aspects.

First, they take upon themselves to define what they are not intellectually equipped to do. An actor is not a politician: an actor is an impersonator by profession, who voices out personae. What weight should we accord to an actor’s words on cue? A politician is not a theologian: a politician should use political terms, and not a pseudo language to characterize something deeply rooted in faith (whatever we may think of that particular faith). A media commentator is neither a politician nor a theologian: a journalist, however smart, writes with words calibrated to fill the “news hole” and meet tight deadlines. Yet their instant words are accorded the status of in-depth analysis thanks to their expansion through readers’ forums. This is a dangerous optical illusion: the more comments, the more serious the stem-article looks.  By contrast, the e-propaganda of the Islamic State’s Caliphate is supple, agile, takes the long view (as any religious mindset does), and relies on complex historical, theological and philosophical arguments. It is in essence Scriptural. To counteract it and to explain it to the Western public requires something else that ready-made sentences and expletives. To reduce the thriving toward restoring a Caliphate, jihad, to “Has ISIS claimed it?” or “Did she shout Allah Akbar? (or the new-fangled, contrived, and falsely grammatical “ ‘Allahu’ Akbar”) is sheer idiocy. We reduce Islamic speak to tags. And we speak in tags.

Second, our public interpreters do no realize how poorly they imitate the publicized language of the terrorists. Social networks are replete with sarcasm and derision addressed to ISIS partisans deployed on our homeland. They are presented as able only to shout “Allah Akbar” and are made to sound like guttural idiots. But we fail to realize our opinion makers imitate this portrayal. To stutter “tragic, horrific, deranged” to characterize a major crisis is to emulate the attacker’s war cry. He says “Allah Akbar! ”, we say “horror! ”  We are just inarticulate. We have been terrorized into not using the full gamut of our civilizational tongue.

In fact, do we, the public, fully realize that the portrayal of Islamic partisans we are provided with is deceitful? They are not short on ideas, nor short on words. Studies have shown that the majority of Islamic State’s past recruits in the Middle East and the Maghreb have engineering degrees. They are not short on modern knowledge.  It is known also that their propaganda office is still staffed with graduates from good if not excellent colleges. They are not short on liberal arts education. In response what do we do? Not much. This is a crisis where our public interpreters should dig deep into our intellectual traditions, moral philosophy, history, and science to shape public argument, to explain, and to respond. They have at their disposal the immense library of Western knowledge. They ignore it. They fall back onto stammering clichés. Has anyone noticed that the New York City attacker (whose second name is “God’s Beloved”) ended his murderous run by ramming into a school bus? Has anyone read the admonition by the Islamic State, following the Paris November 2015 attack, that Western education is the source of “corruption of young souls”–and therefore schools and teachers are primary targets? Where are the interpreters? Where are the arguments? In fact, they have been terrorized into not saying anything of value.

After each terror attack, words fail us. Culture fails us. Rational talk fails us. This failure is worse than the repeated failure of agencies to stop attacks that should have been prevented. It is time to realize that terror is terrorizing our ability to make sense of terror, and time to lay the blame at the door of those whose duty or perceived duty is to interpret and explain public affairs for the benefit of us all.

Philippe-Joseph Salazar is Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric in the Faculty of Law at the University of Cape Town and past Director in Rhetoric andDemocracy at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris. He is also a member of the National Press Club of Washington. In 2008 he received the Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, the top prize for research on the African continent. In 2015 he received the Prix Bristol des Lumières for the French edition of this book. Dorna Khazeni was a finalist for the PEN USA Translation Award. She has published her translations from French in Vanity Fair, Harper’s, Zoetrope AllStory, The Believer, and elsewhere.

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Featured Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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