Linguistic Somersaults in an Age of Aggression and State Terrorism

Edward S. Herman
Z Magazine, forthcoming
December 2006

[the edition here is slightly larger and has endnotes]

In this age of a global rogue state’s serial aggressions and terrorism, language is as essential a tool of the state’s managers as guns, tanks, missiles and bombs. Orwellian language has always been widely used by governments, but in this post-Soviet era with Soviet containment ended, with an openly acknowledged “projection of power” and a familiar ruthlessness working side-by-side with an alleged “promotion of democracy,” linguistic advances in putting state violence in a good light have been needed and supplied. The set below contains a few holdovers from my earlier Doublespeak Dictionary in Beyond Hypocrisy (South End Press: 1992). These are marked by an asterisk. Cross references are indicated by a q.v. (quod vide=which see).

Abusive methods (of interrogation) Torture (q.v.).
*Aggression, naked An armed attack on another country in violation of the UN Charter by someone other than ourselves and without our approval, as in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Such an attack must be repelled and the United States and “international community” (q.v.) must see that the responsible villains are punished.
*Aggression, internal The taking up of arms by an indigenous population against a government that we support.[1] Such an uprising must be crushed and the irresponsible population opposing our choice of government must be saved from itself.
*Aggression, well-attired An armed attack on another country in violation of the UN Charter carried out by ourselves or a client, based on the right of “self-defense” (q.v.) and the need to protect the human rights of some or all inhabitants of the targeted state. The “international community” (q.v.) will accept and even support the ensuing occupation until the aggressors can establish “stability” (q.v.). (See also, Projection of power.)
Aggressive methods (of interrogation) Torture (q.v).
Alternative set of procedures Torture (q.v.).
Anti-Semitism Formerly, prejudice against Jews, currently hostility to Israel, Israeli actions and/or Israeli leaders. In the modern world many who fit the older version of anti-Semite are now very fond of Israel (e.g., Jerry Falwell) and hence are no longer anti-Semites.
Appeasement Giving in to the demands of an aggressor, hence encouraging its leaders to push ahead with their plans to attack, as in the West’s 1938 acceptance at Munich of Hitler’s plan to occupy a part of Czechoslavakia (eventually swallowing the whole). More recently it has come to mean the use of diplomacy rather than force in resolving a problem, as in the outcry over the West’s failure to confront “Iran's accelerated efforts to get the bomb,“ where the West, if it fails to stand firm, “will see the bullies' demands only increase as its own resistance weakens. Like the appeasement of the 1930s, opting for the easier choice will only guarantee a more costly one later on.” (Victor Davis Hanson).[2]
Approved techniques (of interrogation) Torture (q.v.).
Asymmetrical war A conflict in which a lightly armed resistance refuses to march in formation to be annihilated by bombing and machine gun fire, but instead and in cowardly fashion hides, shoots from cover, engages in suicide bombing attacks, and commits suicide in places of incarceration to put us in a bad light.[3]
Axis of evil A set of countries linked by the fact that The Decider (q.v.) and his associates have targeted them for attack and regime change. They are tied together rhetorically to suggest a connection between them similar to that between Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan before and during World War II.
Birth pangs Dead children and smashed infrastructure, brought about by the need to get at “root causes” (q.v.) as we try to bring into being political regimes that provide “stability” (q.v.)
“Bringing Terrorists To Justice Act of 2006” Torture permission legislation.
Chicken hawk A zealous crusader who always has “other priorities” than actually getting out in the crusading field.
Clash of Civilizations With the end of the Cold War and the ability to rationalize imperial expansion in terms of a need to contain the Evil Empire, an alleged “Clash of Civilizations” – the “Free World” (q.v.) versus “Islamo-Fascism” (q.v.) – along with a closely-related “War on Terror” (q.v.), has been advanced as the ideological cover for accelerated imperial expansion.
Class warfare Tax and expenditure policies that redistribute income downward; those that redistribute it upward are for the purpose of improving incentives to work and invest.
Coercive interrogation Torture (q.v.).
Collateral damage (or “we didn’t mean to”) Killings that are not deliberate as regards particular individuals, although highly probable as regards unknown parties in the vicinity of the target.[4]
Command responsibility The legal responsibility of top military leaders and high officials for crimes carried out by their underlings, applicable only in cases involving the personnel of states targeted by the United States or one of its clients.[5]
Compassionate conservatism Inhumane reaction. (See Tough love).
*Conservatism A political philosophy whose central tenet is that The Government Is Too Big, except for the police and military establishment.
Cut-and-run Refusal to continue on a losing course when this would imply that The Decider (q.v.) had been wrong and that his “mission” (q.v.) could not be successfully accomplished. (Ant.: Stay the course (q.v.), sometimes also referred to as Stay-and-slay.)
Death tax A new term replacing “estate tax,” which suggests that instead of progressively taxing the tiny minority of extremely wealthy, as it does, the tax imposes a cruel penalty on the general populace for dying.
Decider, The A bubble-enveloped frat-boy ruler of a collapsing democracy, who has arrogated to himself all rights and powers to make major national decisions, leaving the checks-and-balances system and U.S. Constitution as road kill.
Defiant Refusing to go along with our demands, as in “Iran defiant on nuclear plans.” Our own refusals are simply impatient and angry dismissals and annoyance at challenges to the principle that might makes right.
Deliberate (killing) Face-to-face killing, in contrast with impersonal killing via weapons dispensed at a distance from the target.
Democracy, The promotion of One of the nominal objectives used to rationalize the power projection of the U.S. imperial state. It replaces the earlier benevolent motives associated with the “white man’s burden,” “bringing Christianity to the savages,” and containing and rolling back the spread of Communism. Strikingly, the alleged policy objective of promoting democracy abroad parallels a rolling back of democratic substance at home within the imperial state and its leading ally (Great Britain).
Demographic bomb Fear that the natural growth of an unwanted ethnic group might challenge the domination of the Chosen People.
Detainee A prisoner held by us; taken into custodial care for information and neutralization as combatant, but as in Guantanamo, provided water-boarding and a virtual tropical vacation resort (Rumsfeld);[6] so we refused to allow the Red Cross in for fear that its positive reports might cause people to surrender and come just for the amenities. (See also, Unlawful enemy combatant).
Deterrent Our capacity to prevent another country from effectively opposing our will by acquiring the means of self-defense.
Embedded In-bed-with.
Ethnic cleansing Removal of an unwanted ethnic group, either to assure political domination of an area in an ethnic conflict (Bosnia, 1992-1995) or to seize desired land occupied by an unwanted people in favor of a militarily dominant ethnic group (West Bank, 1967-2006).
Ethnic thinning Ethnic cleansing by discrete methods of encouraging and forcing the exit of an unwanted ethnic group, as in the “new master plan for the city of Jerusalem,” which “involves thinning out the population in all quarters of the Old City, except the only one restored so far – the Jewish Quarter – as a means of slowing down the rapid population growth."[7]
Extremist A non-triangulator.
Fallujah An updated Guernica, in which the Iraqis were taught a needed lesson such as the Nazis gave to the Spanish, but using more advanced technology and inflicting more death and destruction. Fallujah awaits its Picasso.
Flexibility Freedom from unions and strong labor bargaining power.
Fox News A fair and balanced daily Nuremberg Rally.
*Free World The group of countries that maintain a door open to private foreign investment.
Friendly fire (deaths from) Really tragic errors in which the collaterally damaged are one or more of our own. Errors like this have happened with increasing frequency given the greater use of steadily improving deadly weapons and the minimal cost of collateral damage to those doing the damage.
Gamble Willingness to take risks in policies affecting the weaker members of society that legislators would not take in policies affecting their own; as in, “the legislature was willing to gamble that those knocked off the welfare rolls would quickly find work.”
Geneva Conventions International legal rules protecting non-combatants of all kinds, including military prisoners – but not “unlawful enemy combatants” (q.v.), according to The Decider (q.v.), his associates, and the U.S. congress and Senate.[8]
Ghost detainee An unlawful enemy combatant who has disappeared within the detention labyrinth and effectively ceases to exist.
God An unpaid consultant to The Decider.
Harsh measures (of interrogation) Torture (q.v.).
Humanitarian intervention Nominally, all wars of aggression, as all are allegedly serving a humanitarian end; in reality none have that goal or result, given the nature of states and the impact of murderous means (war) on the course and consequences of such conflict.[9]
International community An informal coalition of states, along with the UN, NGOs, and other vocal members of the global elite, which, under the mantle of humanitarian concerns, regularly supports the actions and demands of the U.S. superpower. Many of its members, including NGOs, are recipients of foreign aid or other U.S. government subventions. It is not to be confused with a majority of the planet’s inhabitants, or states, or even of its law-abiding states.
Islamo-Fascism The “War on Terror’s” villain in a Western-created “Clash of Civilizations” (q.v.), serving as the ideological replacement of the Cold War’s Evil Empire. As fascism has bad connotations, and large numbers of the people opposing the imperial agenda believe in Islam, linking the two together as the evil and threatening enemy who terrorizes and with whom we clash, is, like the Axis of Evil, good propaganda management. (See War on Terror).
Kidnapping Enemy seizure of one of our soldiers; the equivalent when the roles are reversed is called “capture” or “taking a prisoner.”
Last big push The one the leadership is proposing today.
Lasting settlement One that gets at “roots causes” (q.v.) and establishes “stability” (q.v.).
Latitude (in interrogation) Torture (q.v.)
Liberation A default-option objective, after the one employed initially (e.g., eliminating weapons of mass destruction) proves to be unsustainable and the real ones (e.g., projecting power, oil rights, aiding Israel) remain hard to sell.
Militant An individual above the age of 5 that we or Israel kill or capture. Those that oppositional forces capture are “kidnapped” and “hostages” taken by “terrorists” (q.v.)
Meddling Giving economic, military or diplomatic support to a country we are targeting.
Mission. A moving nominal objective adjusted according to changing circumstances. In the case of Iraq it changed from eliminating weapons of mass destruction – whose elimination was our “single question” and goal – to bringing liberty to that distant people.
Moderate One who does not challenge the status quo and whose political positions and power are consistent with “stability” (q.v.).
Morocco A “valuable partner in the war against terrorism” (CIA intelligence report); i.e., a country that will torture those rendered to it without restraint, out of sight and hearing.[10]
Projection of power Imperialist expansion, nominally in self-defense and in a search for defensible frontiers. (See also, Aggression, well-attired.)
Pro-life Supporting fetal rights, often combined with a less-than-average concern for post-fetal life.
Provocations Actions taken by hostile groups or targeted countries that provide the excuses to carry out military actions planned long in advance. The provocations may be part of a long tit-for-tat sequence or may be manufactured to meet the specific need.
Quaint Laws that interfere with The Decider’s plans.
Rendition Torture outsourcing.
Root causes Basic or underlying reasons for behavior. In earlier years, references to root causes of things like the behavior of street criminals or the motives of the 9/11 terrorists were decried as blatant apologetics for acts that must be condemned forthrightly without regard to any alleged roots. More recently it is recognized that countries like the United States or Israel must be allowed to kill and destroy in Iraq, Lebanon and perhaps elsewhere until they can get at the root causes – i.e., establish regimes that will allow their domination and ethnic cleansing operations without terroristic responses (see Terrorism).
Rough methods (of interrogation) Torture. (q.v.)
Security The Linus blanket used to cover over state terrorism with a purr word that almost never has anything to do with real reasons for action.
Security barrier or fence Apartheid wall.
Self-defense The right of a powerful country to beat up a small neighbor or even a distant target based on a “provocation” (q.v.) or alleged security threat.
Stability Economic and political arrangements that satisfy our interests and that we will therefore not destabilize.
Staying the course Compounding an error in order to avoid having to acknowledge a mistake.
Stress and duress Torture (q.v.).
Taking off the gloves Torturing.
Terrorism Unapproved violence carried out in accord with an objectionable political agenda (see “Self defense”).
Torture The use of methods that we indignantly reject as a feature of rogue states, but which by dint of a determined struggle The Decider and his colleagues have gotten legalized.
Tough love Harsh policies toward poor people that reflect contempt, inhumanity and barely concealed hatred, but as the policies are claimed to be for “their own good” the word love is combined with tough.
Tough methods (of interrogation) Torture (q.v.).
Unlawful enemy combatant Any individual seized or purchased from bounty hunters by our forces and declared by The Decider or one of his agents to fall into the category of “anything goes with him.”
Unorthodox measures (of interrogation) Torture (q.v.).
UN Charter An international agreement signed by all the major powers in 1946 designed to “end the scourge of war” by prohibiting armed attacks on other countries, except in self defense or with the approval of the Security Council. It has been rendered inoperative because the one remaining superpower has chosen to “project power” and engage in “preemptive” (and de facto “preventive”) warfare in literal violation of the Charter, and nobody can – or even tries – to do anything about it. Its veto and military power can also allow any client state to attack and ethnically cleanse without penalty.
Victims’ mentality Claiming the status of victim and whining, but only in cases where we are responsible for, or have approved of, the victimization. When we disapprove, the claimants are straightforward victims without any attributed propensity to whine.
War on Terror 1. The Eighth Crusade,[11] currently being waged under the cover of a crusader-imposed “Clash of Civilizations” (q.v.), allegedly in response to the grave threat of “Islamo-Fascism” (q.v.).
2. A desperate and prospectively very long struggle against a technique of warfare and abstract noun.
3. The most serviceable system of propaganda since the Cold War (ca. 1917 - 1989).


  1. Adlai Stevenson used this term in a UN speech in 1964 as he explained the basis for U.S. intervention in Vietnam. The United States was then furiously resisting all efforts at a negotiated settlement, knowing full well that the political support of our chosen agents in South Vietnam was minimal; hence the need to make the indigenous population aggressing against itself. See Chomsky and Herman, “On the Aggression of South Vietnamese Peasants Against the United States (Review of Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam),” reprinted in Chomsky, Towards A New Cold War.
  2. Quotes from Hanson, “Appeasement – then and now,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 20, 2006.
  3. “I believe this was not an act of desperation , but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us” (Rear Admiral Harry Harris), quoted in James Risen and Tim Golden, “Three Detainees Kill Themselves at Guantanamo Prison: U.S. Military Officials Say Suicides May Have Been a Form of Coordinated Protest,” NYT, June 11, 2006. A State Department official also declared the suicides a “good P.R. move,” in David Cloud, “State Dept. Disavows Statement on Suicides,” NYT, June 13, 2006.
  4. For an excellent discussion of the untenable moral and legal distinction between collateral damage and deliberate killings, see Michael Mandel, How America Gets Away With Murder, under “Collateral Damage,” pp. 46-56.
  5. Command responsibility was a frequent Yugoslav Tribunal charge against Serbian military and political leaders, but was regularly found inapplicable to Croat, Bosnian Muslim, and of course U.S. officials. While charged to Milosevic for his failure to control Croatian and Bosnian Serb military commanders (for which he had no legal responsibility), Yugoslav Tribunal judges never applied this rule to Izetbegovic, Tudjman or a string of their military officials. The Tribunal even used this route to charge Momcilo Krajisnik, head of the Bosnian Serb Assembly, who had no command responsibility whatsoever, but who was allegedly responsible for “Expressions of ethnic hatred and scaremongering in the Bosnian-Serb Assembly [which] were a staple under his chairmanship throughout and beyond the indictment period.” (See Prosecutor v. Momcilo Krajisnik, IT-00-39-T, Judgment, Sept. 27, 2006, paragraph 900).
  6. In addition to Rumsfeld’s famous remark on this point, Cully Stimson, the Defense Department's Assistant Secretary of Defense for detainee affairs, on one of his regular trips to the base, stated that life inside Guantanamo isn't so bad: "If U.S. prisoners saw the detention regime these people are in, they'd be knocking down the door to get into Gitmo," he said, using the nickname for the U.S. naval base on land leased from Communist Cuba. (Source)
  7. Nadav Shragai, "New Jerusalem master plan seeks to curb Old City overcrowding", Ha'aretz, September 14, 2004.
  8. On the scope of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, see ACLU Letter to the Senate Strongly Urging Opposition to S. 3930, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, Caroline Fredrickson and Christopher E. Anders, September 25, 2006. See also, Marjorie Cohn, “Rounding Up U.S. Citizens
  9. One of the most notable efforts at “humanitarian intervention,” in Kosovo, has led to the following result, as described by James Bissett, one time Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia: “For the past seven years Kosovo has become one of the most dangerous places on Earth. It is the center of heroin, weapons and human trafficking into Western Europe. Murder and abduction of non-Albanians are a daily occurrence. Civil society is non-existent and living standards are equivalent to those of Haiti. There is evidence that Islamic extremists with Al Qaeda connections are a growing presence. In short, Kosovo has all the characteristics of a failed state. Under the watchful eyes of the UN and NATO, more than 200,000 Serbs, Jews, Romans and other non-Albanians have been expelled from Kosovo. Those who remain are in constant danger.” Bissett, “Keep an eye on that ‘damned silly thing’ in Kosovo”
  10. Quoted from Stephen Grey’s Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program, in Vivienne Walt, “Inside the CIA’s Secret Prison Program,” Time, Oct. 13, 2000.
  11. “Viewed in the light of their original purpose, the Crusades were failures. They made no permanent conquests of the Holy Land. They did not retard the advance of Islam. Far from aiding the Eastern Empire, they hastened its disintegration. They also revealed the continuing inability of Latin Christians to understand Greek Christians, and they hardened the schism between them. They fostered a harsh intolerance between Muslims and Christians, where before there had been a measure of mutual respect. They were marked, and marred, by a recrudescence of anti-Semitism... ,” Williston Walker, “The Christian Crusades, 1095-1231.”
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