Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Terror, war and propaganda

Before the Beginning

I don't know what the word terror means to you, but for me it's that feeling of being tossed about in an airplane in extreme turbulence. It's fear-with-a-deadline, it's a state half physical, half psychological, half spiritual and if that adds up to three halves, so be it; 150% of possible alertness sounds about right.  

            The word is bandied about a lot these days and anyone trained in the nuances of language has to be shaking his head in amazement when politicians quibble for days over the question of, for instance, whether or not a deranged man galloping through the capital with a stupid hunting rifle is a terrorist or not.

            Of course, agreeing on what's meant by particular words matters in law where drunk has quite arbitrarily been decided to mean +.08 blood alcohol level. But in the public square, words are not precise points, they're clouds, and when Stephen Harper declares that ISIS has declared war on Canada, he's deliberately releasing the fox into the hen house. The war cloud is big and dark in people's minds and surely we haven't forgotten how George Bush used the war word to prepare the public to accept his astronomically stupid invasion of Iraq.

            Terror, war easily become blunt but effective instruments of partisan propaganda. If we're at war, then all the tools of the wartime propagandist can be deployed: patriotism, loyalty, sacrifice, war-measures actions, curtailing of civil liberties in a dangerous time, etc. Most of all, any criticism of government can be branded as disloyal, unpatriotic, even subversive. Listen to government rhetoric; it's happening right now.

            How would our responses be different if our government characterized Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, ISIS as what they really are, criminal gangs in need of arrest and detention? I remember wincing when the war on terror phrase was introduced into political currency, handing over to Al Qaeda criminals a legitimacy they didn't deserve. We respond differently to crime policing than we do to war.

            Words, words, words.

            Terrorism does have a definition, of course. It's a strategy of inciting fear in order to gain an advantage in conflict. A definition, incidentally, that would fit many a parent, many a teacher. And quite coincidentally, Harper's declaration that "The Jihadists have declared war on us" rather neatly fits that definition as well, given that elections are about as conflict-ridden as we get here in Canada.

            Wartime governments invariably gain election advantages. If our government can't render us jubilant over the economy, by jove, they can always terrorize us into voting for them. What with the economy tanking and an election barely 9 months away, a new strategy is not a surprise. The old adage that "you can't fool all of the people all of the time" just isn't that reassuring, at least not to me; in Canada you literally need only fool a third of the people most of the time to be politically successful.

            I wonder if embarrassment is driving John Baird's resignation.




  1. Excellent argument as usual, George. My understanding of the nuances of the English language can always be improved.

  2. George, have you seen this take on "words, words, words" from south of the border?: http://weeklysift.com/a-conservative-to-english-lexicon/