‘Civil War’ Puts Words on Trial

'Civil War' Puts Words on Trial 1Decades ago, I wrote an article about a police officer who was notorious for roughing up suspects before he took them in for booking. The term-of-art within the Minneapolis police department for that kind of officer was “thumper,” and there was plenty in the public record to suggest that the noun fit him nicely.

He called me after the story ran, livid about being labeled a “thumper.” He was a scary guy and I equivocated for a bit before I was finally able to stammer out, “is it worse that I said it, or worse that it’s true?”

That did not calm him down much. But in the current debate over the use of “civil war” – which began in earnest a week ago when Matt Lauer of NBC said the network would begin using the term to describe the conflict in Iraq – that story serves as a reminder that to name something is not to invent it.

The war over words and definitions is not a new one. The current administration has fought to maintain custody of the Iraqi conflict by defining insurgents as “terrorists” and prisoners of war as “unlawful combatants.” During Vietnam, the administration defined civilian casualties as “collateral damage.”