Magic Words

December 17, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Voldemort. There, I said it.

I can’t remember why all the characters in Harry Potter are afraid to say “Voldemort” and instead refer allusively to “He Who Must Not Be Named.” But I had the impression that if only someone did speak the name, then Voldemort would be finished. Like the Wicked Witch when Dorothy empties the bucket of water on her, he would dissolve into a harmless puddle. Of course, the person who speaks the name would have to be very powerful and brave. But if only we had such a hero would would dare say the magic word, evil would vanish from our world, and we would no longer live in fear.

Such is the power of language, at least in stories for nine-year olds. Maybe on Fox TV as well, and maybe for Republicans generally.  Here is a tweet last month from their most preferred candidate for president:

Other GOP candidates and right-wing Webistes offer a similar analysis. Only if our leader speaks the magic word will the problem be solved.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran this piece by Rudy the Brave.

Giuliani begins:

In 1983 when I was the U.S. attorney in New York, I used the word “Mafia” in describing some people we arrested or indicted. The Italian American Civil Rights League—which was founded by Joe Colombo, one of the heads of New York’s notorious five families—and some other similar groups complained that I was defaming all Italians by using that term.  In fact, I had violated a Justice Department rule prohibiting U.S. attorneys from employing the term Mafia.

See, I told you he was brave – defying the IACR and DoJ by using the forbidden word. He explains why this was both justified and essential in slaying the monster.

This hesitancy to identify the enemy accurately and honestly—“Mafia” was how members described themselves and kept its identity Italian or Italian-American—created the impression that the government was incapable of combating them because it was unable even to describe the enemy correctly.*

He goes on to make the same complaint about Obama that Cruz, Trump, et al. are making. Obama will not say the magic words “Islamic terrorism.”

Obama uses the acronym ISIL or ISIS. The IS stands for Islamic State, a phrase that Obama has no trouble uttering. In this, he is doing what Giuliani says he did with “Mafia” – using the term that they use to describe themselves. 
But with “Mafia,” Giuliani has picked the wrong analogy. What if instead of using the term “Mafia,” Giuliani had said “Italian gangsters” or “Italian criminals”? Why did he not use those terms? After all, as he says, the names in the Mafia membership book all ended in a vowel. Non-Italians may have worked with the Mafia, but none were “made men.”

Giuliani didn’t say “Italian gangsters” for the same reason that Obama doesn’t say “Islamic terrorists.” The terms imply something about all Italians or all Muslims. It is no more accurate to suggest that there is something inherently terroristic in Islam than it is to suggest that something about Italians makes them especially prone to become gangsters.Saying “Mafia” draws the distinction between Italian Americans on the one had and Italian-American gangsters on the other. That’s an important distinction.

Aside from the problem of inaccuracy, there’s the practical aspect. Had Giuliani spoken about “Italian mobsters” he might have pissed off lots of Italians, and not just the mobsters, who in any case were not his biggest fans. He would have alienated Italians whose votes and campaign contributions he would someday need. In a similar way, Obama does not want to alienate the billion or more Muslims whose help or at least neutrality the West needs in the fight against ISIS.  And for Obama and the US, the stakes are much higher than they were for Rudy and his political ambitions.

Yes, words are important, and a phrase that others find insulting can be especially effective in turning them into enemies. But ISIS is already a sworn enemy, and no phrases that we could come up with will change their willingness or ability to continue their war and terrorism.

Conversely, choosing the wrong words could make things even harder for us, and not just over there.  After all, when it comes to letting just about anybody get very deadly weapons, U.S.A., we’re number one. The shootings in San Bernardino showed us just how easy it is for an alienated, radicalized person to get a couple of assault rifles and then do what assault rifles are designed to do – kill a lot of people.

Shouting “Islamic terrorism” may be personally satisfying, even cathartic. It may play very well to the home crowd during its two minutes of hate. But for the president of the United States – the leader of the free world and the leader in the war against ISIS – maybe it’s not such a great idea.

*Giuliani does not explain why using the magic word “Mafia” made his prosecution successful or why the same evidence without the magic word would not have persuaded juries to convict. He says only that his predecessors’ avoidance of the word “created the impression” that they couldn’t get convictions.

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