A Tragic Use of Language

Frankly ... I'm concerned that this increased speculation could cause a backlash against some of our Muslim soldiers. It would be a shame -- as great a tragedy as this was ... if our diversity became a casualty as well ... A diverse Army gives us strength.
These are not the words of an American college professor, from whom we've often come to expect such idiocy. These are the words of General George Casey, Army Chief of Staff, the highest ranking officer in the U.S. Army. He was referring to the Ft. Hood massacre. The general's use of the word "tragedy" (not his inanity on diversity) is beyond being merely odd; it is historic (imagine figures such as Generals Anthony McAuliffe or "Chesty" Puller speaking in this way), and it is detrimental to our survival. 

Here is a newspaper headline: "The Economic Cost of the Mumbai Tragedy." The article was referring to the November 2008 massacre in Bombay by jihadists. Remember that one? To those who write headlines and give speeches for a living, Mumbai was just another in a growing list of sad "tragedies." In this particular "tragedy," Islamists slaughtered 173 and wounded 300.

Here is a short and incomplete list of national figures who view September 11, 2001 as a "tragedy":

Presidential Candidate Governor Mitt Romney:

I had occasion ... following the great disaster on 9/11 to help organize the Olympic Winter Games ... organize the first national special security event following that tragedy.
Romney seems to be unique in calling mass murder both a "tragedy" and a "disaster."

I want to make sure that what happened to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed happens to other people who are terrorists ... He was the so-called mastermind of the 9/11 tragedy.

Note that he is even afraid of calling KSM the mastermind so he qualifies it with the adjective "the so-called.

Secretary of State Colin Powell:

Then came the tragedy of 9/11.

A terrible, terrible tragedy has befallen my nation ...

President George Bush:

For America, 9/11 was more than a tragedy -- it changed the way we look at the world ...

Presidential Candidate Sen. John McCain:

Mayor Giuliani did a great job as mayor of New York City and led the country and inspired us after the tragedy of 9/11.
(Imagine if people said, "What a tragedy it was that Lt. Commander McCain was repeatedly tortured by his North Vietnamese captors.")

Candidate Barack Obama:

You know, a lot of you remember the tragedy of 9/11 and where you were on that day ...

The tragedy in New York was a trauma to the country that it is going to take a long time for us to work out."

The list of people cited above is discouraging. (I voted for two of them.)  

When Barack Obama was talking about "the tragedy in New York," he was not referring to a Broadway stage drama. But he had no idea how close to the mark his remarks really were. In fact, with that usage, he captured what has become the mental state of the nation. Here are some examples:

"It's too soon!!!!!!!!" "... suddenly, I want to crawl into a corner and cry...just cry. I'm sorry, but it's much too soon."

"One lady was crying. She was saying we shouldn't have [played the trailer]. That this was wrong ... I don't think people are ready for this." 

These were the reactions of the American movie audiences that were shown the trailer to the film United 93...nearly five years after September 11.

Let's think back for a moment. Nearly seventy years ago, a distant Pacific island, a U.S. territory, was attacked, and over 2,000 U.S. military personnel were killed. Was that event ever called a "tragedy"? By anyone? In the words of our president, the Japanese had orchestrated an "unprovoked and dastardly attack." The choice of those precise words helped mobilize a nation and launch a war to thoroughly defeat the enemy that had attacked us. 

In fact, so angry, energized and, dedicated were we to defeating that enemy that one of our nation's first acts was to round-up 200,000 loyal Japanese Americans and throw them into internment camps for the duration of the war. And what was our final response to that unprovoked and dastardly attack? It was to drop atomic bombs on two of our enemy's cities, thereby incinerating over 200,000 civilians in order to make that enemy surrender. It worked. We were committed to that cause because we never surrendered to the "tragedy" and "trauma" of December 7th.

One aspect of the use of "tragedy" that is particularly baffling is that it has been embraced by those from whom you would never expect it, from people who should know better, viz., 1) a Secretary of State, combat veteran, and former Four Star Army General, 2) a Republican president actually trying to fight the enemy who caused the "tragedy," and 3) a Republican presidential candidate, U.S. Senator, former Navy fighter pilot, and bona fide Vietnam War hero. Why are they afraid to use proper words in describing 9/11 or Ft. Hood?

Imagine how absurd it would have been if Roosevelt had called December 7, 1941 a "tragedy." Seriously, such usage would have stunned the nation almost as much as the attack itself. He would have been laughed at in every corner of the country. And how many men would have volunteered to fight in the Second World War on account of...well...a "tragedy"? It's probably a good thing that the extermination of six million Jews was quickly labeled the Holocaust; otherwise, today we might be calling it the "The Really Big Sad Tragedy."

Why do the users of this word shy away from much more appropriate usages?  Would Candidate Obama ever have wanted to take issue with John McCain's using the phrase "the massacre of 9/11?" Seriously? Who would want to argue with John McCain that September 11 was not a massacre...or to borrow from FDR, a dastardly attack? Does it take courage to call it what it was? What is the downside? Isn't there only upside?

You might ask, "Why does this word nonsense make any difference? Look, we all agree that 9/11 was a very sad event." It is the power that words have over us that make a difference, and depending on the circumstances, this is not a trivial matter. The words a speaker chooses to use can produce dramatically different reactions on the part of those who hear him. Just consider for a moment the enormous power that has been conferred on those who use the repugnant N-word in public; thousands go into paroxysms of rage and hurt feelings. Radio and television airwaves become saturated with the story. Various national leaders fly across the country to meet with the user of the word in order to administer sensitivity training.

In today's world, the repeated use of the word "tragedy" to describe vile atrocities is self-destructive, the tragic (in the classic sense of the word) irony of which is utterly lost on those who insist on bludgeoning us with it.  "Tragedy" elicits a passive response on the part of the listeners and the users. One hears the word "tragedy," and one of the first things that come to mind is...well...the need for counseling (as Obama implied). After 9/11 and events like Ft. Hood, we needed therapy. The listener hears "tragedy," and  he feels like a victim. He wants to run for the couch and curl up in the fetal position with his teddy bear.  

The repeated use of the T-word may even account for why so many Americans have by now forgotten 9/11 and what it represents. "Oh, it's a trauma and sadness that I'd rather put behind me...I've finally gotten over the tragedy." Maybe this is one of the reasons why so few men have volunteered to serve in our military since September 11; after all, who takes up arms when he's just been whacked by sadness?

The English language is rich in vocabulary, and it is not difficult to find phrases more appropriate than that which is now commonly used by our leaders and media. "Massacre" or "mass murder" or "atrocity" or "crime against humanity" or "murderous attack"...these phrases illicit active responses. They focus the mind on the need to hit back. They prepare a nation to fight a war to defend itself. And they have the side benefit of being completely accurate in describing what actually happened on September 11 and at Ft. Hood. 

Our national figures have put us on "tragedy overload" from 9/11 to Ft. Hood, from cop-killings to Mumbai. They have missed the opportunity to be clear -- to lead. And this prevents us from eliminating those who are committed to destroying us.

At a recent homecoming of a Marine Corps battalion, I saw someone wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a line from Eisenhower's first inaugural address: "History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid." Now reread Gen. Casey's words above...and then give some thought to what our enemy's reaction to the general's words might be. We must force our leaders to tell it like it is...and to lead.

Tragedy:  A drama or literary work in which the main character is brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

Copyright © 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Tragedy: 1 a : a medieval narrative poem or tale typically describing the downfall of a great man b : a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror c : the literary genre of tragic dramas; 2 a : a disastrous event : calamity b: misfortune

Alan Fraser is the father of a United States Marine.  He can be contacted at alanfraser62@gmail.com.
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