Terry Jones: war on grammar

Why grammar is the first casualty of war

By Terry Jones, Monty Python member, writer and performer (Filed: 01/12/2001)

WHAT really alarms me about President Bush’s “war on terrorism” is the grammar. How do you wage war on an abstract noun? It’s rather like bombing murder.

Imagine if Bush had said: “We’re going to bomb murder wherever it lurks. We are going to seek out the murderers and the would-be murderers, and bomb any government that harbours murderers.”

The other thing that worries me about Bush and Blair’s “war on terrorism” is: how will they know when they’ve won it? With most wars, you can say you’ve won when the other side is either all dead or surrenders. But how is terrorism going to surrender?

It’s hard for abstract nouns to surrender. In fact it’s very hard for abstract nouns to do anything at all of their own volition – even trained philologists can’t negotiate with them. It’s difficult to find their

hide-outs, useless to try to cut off their supplies.

The bitter semantic truth is that you can’t win against these sort of words – unless, I suppose, you get them thrown out of the Oxford English Dictionary. That would show ’em. Admittedly, the Second World War was fought against fascism.

But that particular abstract noun was cunningly hiding behind the very real Nazi government. We simply had to defeat Germany to win. In President Bush’s war, there is no such solution. Saying “We will destroy terrorism” is about as meaningful as saying: “We shall annihilate mockery.”

Moreover, in its current usage, terrorism cannot be committed by a country. When America bombed a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory under the impression that it was a chemical weapons establishment, that was stupid. But it was not an act of terrorism because the US Government did it officially. And it apologised for it.

That’s very important: no self-respecting terrorist ever apologises. It’s one of the few things that distinguishes legitimate governments from terrorists. So, it was difficult for President Bush to know whom to bomb after the World Trade Centre outrage.

If Bermuda had done it, then it would have been simple: he could have bombed the Bahamas. It must have been really irritating that the people who perpetrated such a horrendous catastrophe were not a nation.

What’s more, terrorists – unlike a country – won’t keep still in one place so you can bomb them. They have this annoying habit of moving around, sometimes even going abroad. It’s all very un-American (apart from the training, that is).

On top of all this, you have no idea who the terrorists are. It’s in their nature not to be known until they’ve committed their particular act of terrorism. Otherwise, they’re just plain old Tim McVeigh who lives next door, or that nice Mr Atta who’s taking flying lessons.

So, let’s forget the abstract noun. Let’s rename this conflict the “war on terrorists”; that sounds a bit more concrete. But, actually, the semantics get even more obscure. What exactly does President Bush mean by terrorists? He hasn’t defined the term, so we’ll have to try to work out what he means from his actions.

Judging by those actions, the terrorists all live together in “camps” in Afghanistan. Presumably, they spend the evenings playing the guitar and eating chow around the campfire. In these “camps”, the terrorists also engage in “training” and stockpiling weapons, which we can obliterate with our cluster bombs and missiles.

Nobody seems to have told the President that the horrors of September were perpetrated with little more than a couple of dozen box-cutters. I suppose the US could bomb all the stockpiles of box-cutters in the world, but I have a sneaking feeling that it’s still not going to eradicate terrorists.

Besides, I thought the terrorists who crashed those planes into the World Trade Centre were living in Florida and New Jersey. I thought the al-Qa’eda network was operating in 64 countries, including America and many European states – which even President Bush might prefer not to bomb.

But no: the President, Congress, Tony Blair and pretty well the entire House of Commons are convinced that terrorists live in Afghanistan. And what is meant by: “We mustn’t give in to the terrorists”? We gave in to them the moment the first bombs fell on Afghanistan.

The instigators of September 11 must have been popping the corks on their non-alcoholic champagne. They had successfully provoked America into attacking yet another poor country it didn’t previously know much about, thereby creating revulsion throughout the Arab world and ensuring support for the Islamic fundamentalists.

Words have become devalued, some have changed their meaning, and the philologists can only shake their heads. The first casualty of war is grammar.

This is an edited version of an essay by Terry Jones, extracted from Voices for Peace: an Anthology (Scribner, 7.99) published in aid of Warchild.

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