UK paperback

Terrorist act

A slip of the tongue?

George W Bush got confused:

And the United States Congress was right to renew the terrorist act – the Patriot Act. (Applause.) The Terrorist Prevention Act, called the Patriot Act.

Instead of giggling at another of the president’s losing battles with his teleprompter, let us see how the mistake illuminates the overall rhetorical strategy. Of course, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act of 2004 is quite separate from the Patriot Act, which gets a Pavlovian round of clapping at its very mention. No doubt it’s understandable that Bush conflates the various exciting pieces of terrorism legislation. He’s the decider, not a filing clerk. Evidently, too, he is fond of the idea of terrorist prevention, which may fruitfully be compared with Tony Blair’s recent call for “pre-birth” intervention against people who might become a “menace to society”.

Especially revealing, though, is that Bush’s first instinct was to call it the terrorist act. The word “terrorist” remains so fizzingly potent that simply prepending it to any phrase rhetorically justifies the idea proposed. (Remember, you can do anything you like to terrorist suspects.) Hence also Bush’s continuing reference to his program of warrantless wiretapping of American citizens as the terrorist surveillance program. But no one can completely govern the effect of his language, and herein lies a danger. After all, the simplest interpretation of such phrases is that they mean exactly what they say: that a terrorist act, or a terrorist surveillance program, is a piece of legislation that is intentionally terrorist, in that it aims to cow American citizens into docile compliance through fear of the all-seeing state. Hammering such phrases into the public ear, while unspeaking what appears to be their primary sense, is very clever indeed.

Update: via WIIIAI, the military commissions that the Administration wants Congress to legalize are now being called terrorist tribunals. Quite.

  1. 1  abb1  September 8, 2006, 9:28 am 

    Oh c’mon, ‘terrorist’ is so 2005; it’s ‘fascist’ now. It’s fascist act called the Patriot Act, fascist surveillance program.

  2. 2  SP  September 8, 2006, 9:35 am 

    I think that might make it too obvious. ;)

  3. 3  bobw  September 9, 2006, 2:38 am 

    I’d like to get back to your review of Martin Amis (Sept 2) but the page is blank. Any advice?

  4. 4  GG  September 9, 2006, 5:44 am 

    The subject of this blog is very interesting to me but often so high-flown that I have felt unable to participate. Could that be a criticism?

    As a medical doctor who has attended lectures by ‘world authorities’ I have been struck by their tendency to avoid medical jargon and express themselves in language that is uncomplicated and therefore easy to understand. I have, perhaps faciley, concluded that those who use jargon and complicated constructions don’t fully understand themselves what they are talking about.

    I remember reading a George Orwell essay many years ago and the message I have retained from it is that, when governments seek to sweeten unpalatable information for public consumption, they couch it in lengthy latinisms. The Americans are particularly guilty of this. Their use of ‘utilize’ in favour of ‘use’ is so commonplace that I have begun to wonder if using ‘use’ is incorrect. ‘Rendition’ may not be lengthy but it is an obscenity.

    The following is a link I’ve found to the above mentioned essay, although I have to say it turns out not to be the way I remember it.

    On the subject of Martin Amis, would it be too down-to-earth to suggest that his motification for writing the Atta piece had more to do with making a point stemming from his friendship with a famous Jewish American writer, whose name escapes me, and with his marital arrangements, than with any nice literary use of metaphor in the usual grunge-Amis idiom. Promoting his personal prejudices was his primary objective and an academic dissection of the manner in which he did it, an irrelevance.

  5. 5  GG  September 9, 2006, 7:13 am 

    The above is the link to the beginning of the essay rather than to page two of it.

  6. 6  sw  September 9, 2006, 7:52 am 

    Is it not possible that what is obvious plain-speaking to you would be confusing, jargon-laced medical nonsense to somebody without your expertise? But maybe not; I see where you’re going. After all, every time I hear physicists talking about their so-called “Hawking radiation” and their so-called “singularities”, I conclude that they don’t fully understand what they are talking about. Of course, they would probably agree.

    And are you alluding to Saul Bellow?

  7. 7  SP  September 9, 2006, 8:56 am 

    Hello GG. I’m sorry that the blog appears high-flown; I do make an effort to avoid using too many technical terms from rhetoric or literary analysis. Orwell’s essay is discussed in the book’s Introduction.

    Bobw, I don’t know what happened to Amis: it should be back now.

  8. 8  GG  September 9, 2006, 2:37 pm 


    I have listened to these medical experts with just the point you are making in mind and came to the conclusion that one didn’t need to be steeped in medical jargon to understand them, although, I concede, I may be taking a certain elementary knowledge for granted.

    Yes, Saul Bellow is the writer Amis claims as a second father figure.


    I am happy I came on your blog (via whateveritisimagainstit) as the use of language in the media has long interested me.

  9. 9  Kevin Beck  September 9, 2006, 9:46 pm 

    I just now saw a BBC story on the Mosque bombing in Malegaon, India. There was no mention of it in the US media. Why? Do we in the US see Muslims as inherently incapable of being victims of “terrorism” (whatever terrorism means)? It seems like the US media/gov’t assume Muslims can only be perpetrators of terrorism.

  10. 10  bobw  September 12, 2006, 8:02 pm 

    It’s now 9-12, and I expected you would have a major unspeak from yesterday. Was it all just too unspeakable?

  11. 11  abb1  September 12, 2006, 9:46 pm 

    Yes, did any of it make you want to engage in an involuntary protein spill?

  12. 12  SP  September 13, 2006, 12:56 am 

    Apologies for my tardiness. ;)

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