A few years ago, I was working for a national daily during the spate of videoed beheadings of Westerners in the Middle East. Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg were among the first to suffer such a horrific end, then Eugene Armstrong, Jack Hensley and Ken Bigley followed, the latter drawing much of the focus of his native British press.
Our chief revise sub at the paper would send around wry reminders of house style during major news events, and on this occasion he had cause to point us to the definition of the word “execution”. Our entry ran: “An execution is a judicial killing after due process of law” and he cautioned — as if it needed to be pointed out — that none of these victims had had a trial. These were not executions; they were murders.
That didn’t stop our online news editor that day leading our homepage with: “Ken Bigley executed in Iraq”, and although that example was quickly hassled down by pedants, I remember walking past some Evening Standard headline banners bearing, simply, “BIGLEY EXECUTED”. Tut, tut.
Today we still get this wrong. As the military, politicians and journalists begin rummaging through the evidence to determine the truth of what happened to Muammar Gaddafi in Sirte yesterday, some newspapers are running with the “Gaddafi executed” line. But whatever happened to him, he wasn’t executed. He was either a war casualty or a murder victim. Neither are the same as execution.
It’s important, I think, that we get our language correct at times like this, especially when the subject of execution has been in the news so much this year. Part of what made the death of Troy Davis so chilling was that he was executed according to the true definition of the word. He really did die after a trial and an appeals process, and that is why there was such outrage at a legal system that can permit it. “It’s state-sanctioned murder,” sounded the rallying cry about Davis’s death, as if “execution” was too clean a word to describe what happened to him.
Davis and Gaddafi are massively different. There’s no question over Gaddafi’s guilt and few tears will be shed at his demise. He clearly got what was coming, and it is also convenient that he is dead, if only to avoid another courtroom pantomime such as that of Saddam, or even Slobodan Milosevic. (Or what will eventually happen with Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.)
But picking the correct word remains important. Here’s something I wrote on very similar themes about five years ago (forgive the slight repetition):
The ongoing debate over semantics in Iraq – is it unrest, civil war or just plain anarchy? – reminds us that the words of war are not chosen arbitrarily; they can be as loaded as an assassin’s gun.
The style guide of “The Times” of London, for example, advises caution over use of the word “execution,” particularly to describe killings carried out by insurgents, often videotaped and then posted in their grainy horror on the Internet. “An execution is a judicial killing after due process of law,” it says, precisely what these grisly beheadings are not.
Insurgents themselves bear particular scrutiny: they had been tearing through the streets of Baghdad for at least a year before I found courage enough to admit that I didn’t really know what an “insurgent” was. I got the general idea, of course, but hadn’t heard the term – at least not until they began punctuating every news report in the western media.
A colleague, a former foreign editor of a major British daily, forgave my ignorance and confessed he didn’t really know the specifics either. He merely confirmed that the term had only recently entered the newsman’s lexicon with such regularity, adding that in conflicts past, they used “guerilla” and it seemed to mean the same thing.
That, however, was only half right. Websters defines “insurgent” as “a person who rises in revolt against civil authority or an established government.” A “guerilla,” on the other hand, is “a member of an independent band engaged in predatory excursions in wartime.”
The difference is crucial, particularly in post-Saddam Iraq, where the ramshackle bunch of politicians and puppets initially installed as a government did not immediately exude much authority. These interim rulers seemed lucky to survive long enough to draft the evening’s dinner menu, much less the country’s constitution. But as long as it was insurgents trying to kill them, and not guerillas, they were, by implication, a “civil authority” or an “established government.” Furthermore, by the same implication, the war was over.
It was a cunning linguistic trick. As long it was defined as an insurgency, the lawless uprising in Iraq actually assisted in giving the government the validity the puppet-masters in Washington sought. It seems likely that “insurgent” deliberately peppered Pentagon press briefings immediately after the toppling of Saddam until it was convincingly installed as the moniker-du-jour of this particular brand of violence.
And it worked.
“The New York Times” published articles containing both “insurgent” and “Iraq” a total of 31 times in the three years prior to the invasion on March 20, 2001. Most of these mentions referred to rumours that the administration was toying with the idea of training insurgent forces to dislodge Saddam. Other articles described insurgent movements in Colombia or Kyrgyzstan and made only tangential reference to Iraq.
In the years after the invasion, however, there was a renaissance for insurgents, both in flesh and in print. Between March 2003 and March 2004, there were 268 articles in the “Times” that contained the same two words; 1,281 mentions from March 2004-05; and 933 in the following 12 months, to March 2006. While the contrast underlines the strength of Saddam’s iron fist in beating back sectarian violence, it also confirms the rise to prominence of the new term – and all it entails.
So much, then, for the liberal bias of the media. News editors unanimously embraced the politically-laced term even as they sometimes provocatively referred to the coalition forces in Iraq as an occupation. Indeed, the Coalition Provisional Authority installed in Iraq from April 2003 until June 2004 (i.e., the year after President Bush gave his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech) was frequently referred to as an “occupational authority,” yet editors took their liberal thumbs off the scales to describe the insurgency.
They might instead have used another common term, defined in Websters as: “An organized underground movement of a conquered country made up of groups of fighters engaged in sabotage and secret operations to thwart, waylay, and otherwise wear down occupation forces and often also in punishing collaborators among fellow countrymen.”
That word is “resistance” and, purely by definition, it provides a much snugger fit to describe the tactics of the militants in Iraq than “insurgency.” However, it also gives weight to the argument that the coalition forces were an occupation, just like the Nazis coursing through France in the Second World War. Implicitly likening Bush’s freedom fighters to the Third Reich was, presumably, a step too far for even those at the top of Bill O’Reilly’s liberal hitlist.
“Resistance,” as a result, might be a word now stranded in time; it connotes a noble uprising against a tyrannous power and is forever draped in a gray macintosh and beret, drifting through the streets of Paris in a plume of Gitanes smoke. An insurgency, by contrast, stands among a line of police recruits in a crowded marketplace with crude explosives strapped to its midriff.
However they are defined in a dictionary – and whichever is the most accurate for a given example – “resistance” has positive implications and “insurgent” negative, despite what we know about each. The chaos in Iraq is clearly orchestrated with a high level of intelligence and planning, under the noses of the most powerful armed forces ever assembled. It is far from a rag-tag rabble of psychopaths. Meanwhile, the tactics of French resistance of the 1940s were considerably more brutal than force-feeding strong coffee and stale croissants. Some of the torture scenes in Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army Of Shadows” are not too far removed from the gruesome downloads available to the online sadist today.
When activists in the former Yugoslavia began their campaign to overthrow the dictator Slobodan Milosevic, they chose the name “Otpor” meaning “resistance”. Milosevic was, without question, an established (if despised) authority, but history has judged the Butcher of Balkans and there is no clamour for Otpor to be retrospectively rebranded. Milosevic was bad, Otpor good and yet by definition alone it was an insurgency rather than a resistance.
Whoever was responsible for the success of the term “insurgent” (and it might be the same people responsible for the success of the insurgents themselves, i.e. the Bush administration) might even enlist the help of their old friends with respect to the civil war effort. Defined as “a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country,” a civil war necessitates participants who can be classed as “citizens” to exist.
Do insurgents qualify?