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War of error

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Old English teachers never die. We just lurk in dark corners waiting to pounce upon any violation of that which we hold sacred: the language to which we've dedicated our lives.

I'm not talking about subject-verb agreement or even "Me and him went downtown." Such phrases irritate, but they don't defile meaning. We all understand "I'm going to lay out in the sun," or "He ain't nothing but a hound dog." Those constructions aren't ungrammatical; they have to do with custom, not meaning.

No, what really stirs us keepers of the English flame is misuse of language to obscure understanding. Language should clarify our thinking, not cloud it.

One current phrase that causes my blood pressure to zoom is "war on terror." The original meaning of "terror" is fear, panic—a feeling. How can we wage war on a feeling?

Even if we expand terror to include terrorism, the phrase is nonsensical. Terrorism is a method, like hijacking. We might as well say we have declared war on kidnapping.

Suppose we captured all al-Qaida members and all terrorists involved in the mayhem in Iraq. Would we have won a war on terror? Well, how about terrorists in Pakistan, Spain, Indonesia? How about loner terrorists like Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, whose exploding letters killed three and wounded 23? Or Timothy McVeigh, whose truck bomb destroyed the Oklahoma City Federal Building, killing 168 and injuring 800?

We can't win a war on terror, or terrorism; there will always be someone with the will and the ingredients for homegrown violence.

Let's imagine a "do-over" of 2001-03. After 9/11 we discover that the responsible party is al-Qaida, composed not of ordinary Muslims, but of radical jihadists who insist on Islam not only as a religion but as a political system. They demand that Islamic law (sharia) be the basis of governance and consider all opponents fair game. We acknowledge the Sept. 11 Commission's report: no "collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al-Qaida. We note that Saddam Hussein's Baath party is secular and socialist, not devoted to sharia law.

Thus we focus our attention on the known enemy, deal with them as best we can. And we name our opponent: not "terror," but radical jihadists. (Naming is always crucial—never more so than in time of war.) Hussein, innocent of collaboration with al-Qaida, claims only the margins of our attention, for our arguments with him are not part of a nonsensical war on terror. Can you count the lives, pain and treasure saved?

In December 2006, the British Foreign Office told cabinet ministers to drop the phrase "war on terror" to "avoid reinforcing and giving succour to the terrorists' narrative by using language that, taken out of context, could be counterproductive."

Another Brit, George Orwell, who in 1984 and "Politics and the English Language" warned us about misuses of language in political life, would almost certainly agree that our current war on terror would be better named "war of error"—linguistic error. A bloody, costly and tangled error it has turned out to be—one with no resolution in sight.

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