Have you ever heard of the “Pearl Harbor tragedy?” How about the “time of crisis” on December 7, 1941? Not likely.
Nearly 60 years later, Americans still call that day of infamy “the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.” Unfortunately, an equivalent clarity about the September 11 Massacre already has begun to blur within a fog of euphemism. Perusing corporate public-service advertisements, political pronouncements, and other communications over the last few days, I have been struck by how some people have overlooked the fact that America was suddenly and deliberately struck by cold-blooded mass murderers.
Consider this message that Verizon left in my voice mailbox on September 19.
“During this time of crisis, we are asking all customers to review and delete all current and saved messages that are not essential,” a nameless female announcer stated. “This request is necessary due to extensive damage that was recently sustained in the World Trade Center district.”
Time of crisis? Did a tidal wave cause the “recently sustained” wreckage in Manhattan? A company called Tullet & Tokyo Liberty similarly referred to “the disaster that has hit New York and Washington.” The use of the passive voice in these and similar instances suggests that the World Trade Center and Pentagon were smashed by unguided, perhaps natural forces.
Kinko’s has taken an even more detached approach. Shortly after Black Tuesday, the photocopying company placed in its stores some very colorful posters with the Stars and Stripes superimposed upon an outline of the lower 48 states. So far, so good. The graphic also included this regrettable caption: “The Kinko’s family extends our condolences and sympathies to all Americans who have been affected by the circumstances in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.”
Circumstances? That word befits an East Coast electrical blackout, not terrorist destruction.
Many advertisers and officials have dubbed these atrocities a “tragedy,” “trauma,” or series of “tragic events.” An ad signed by Donald J. Trump, chairman of The Trump Organization, mentioned “the tragedy which befell our city, our country and the world on September 11, 2001.” These words are sincere and — in many cases — express sadness for deceased colleagues and loved ones. This sorrow and these immense losses deserve the respect of those of us who survive. Still, describing this month’s evil acts of war as simply tragic drains them of all moral content. A mere tragedy would have occurred had the pilot of American Airlines flight 11 suffered a stroke and careened into Tower One without malice. What actually transpired involved perhaps five years of what homicide prosecutors call “malice aforethought.”
Thankfully, several advertisers have grasped this moral distinction. Bank of America and the United Way jointly sponsored a full-page Wall Street Journal ad that discussed these “times of tragedy,” but later indicated that the two organizations had “joined hands to help the victims and families of the terrorist attack on America.”
“The events of last week have left us speechless,” declared a powerful Lufthansa ad. “There is no language, no words to convey our feelings for the victims of these crimes…We grieve with America, but like America, we will work and plan for a better future, a safer, democratic world in which terror holds no power.”
The “barbarity and tragedy struck very close to home for all Americans,” Wall Street Journal publisher, chairman and CEO Peter Kann wrote in a full-page letter to readers. “We join in their grieving and anger as well.” Kann thrice used the word “attack” to characterize the mayhem at the World Trade Center which stood just across the West Side Highway from the Journal’s deserted headquarters at the damaged and shuttered World Financial Center.
Americans should be vigilant about the language we use throughout Operation Enduring Freedom and the ensuing War on Terror. The events of September 11 were, indeed, monumentally tragic. But they also were calculated deeds of cataclysmic slaughter.
Exterminating the bastards who perpetrated all of this unbridled cruelty will be arduous, painful, and even may involve ugly domestic surprises along the way. Nonetheless, it will be vital throughout this endeavor to remember why we fight. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, even in the realm of rhetoric, this is no time to go wobbly.