Should the real ‘war’ be against lazy thinking and bad English?

As early as 1946, George Orwell argued that English language is facing a ‘decline’ of sorts. In his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell pointed out that English writing in his age – and I would argue, even in our age – suffers from two main problems, i.e., staleness of imagery and lack of precision. Using five paragraphs written by eminent thinkers and writers of his age, he suggests that we are witnessing this ‘mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence’ which has become the ‘ most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.’ He argues further that a word like ‘democracy’ has not only no agreed definition (just like the word ‘terrorism’) but the attempt to make one is resisted from all parties, involved. I quote Orwell at length about democracy, because it is such an important argument

In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. 

Whether it is the US Elections or the recent terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, news media (and those who write for social media) have resorted to use of words that seem to have lost their meaning. Orwell points out that the words ‘democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.’ What he is implying here is true of other words, concepts, ideas and phrases – used often for the ‘value’ they project- good, useful or pleasant and unpleasant, rather than any real concept that we are trying to understand or idea we wish to express.

In the age of social media, where ‘content curation’ has become far more important, than ‘content creation’ this problem has only become worse. I am as guilty of ‘sharing’ ideas that are not mine, in an attempt to sound cool or look profound, but not realizing that my own intellectual contribution to this idea has been zero. No input, no hard work, no clear thinking – just agreeing or disagreeing with something – with often a very superficial understanding of what has been said.

Photo credit :
Photo credit :

Similarly, English media outlets around the world use terms like ‘tolerance’ ‘terrorism’ ‘violence’ and ‘sectarianism’ and ‘democracy’ without really critically examining what these words mean. What does each of this word mean in a specific context – what are its consequences and what do people in each region/ country think about the word and the concept associated with it. How is the lived reality of a Lebanese different from that of an American when it comes to his/her experience of democracy or inter-faith tolerance? Much of this is lost in the rush to explain the ‘extremist violence’ gripping all of Lebanon and the blame is usually assigned to one or two actors, and that somehow satisfies our sensibilities – given that we want easy explanations, much of the time.

Consider this a call for greater vigilance against lazy thinking and mental banking. We need a great war against bad use of English words, phrases and expressions, which obfuscate and confuse as much as they illuminate. We need a ‘global war on bad English’ as much as we had a ‘Global war on terror’. While the latter has failed, I do believe that with some vigilance, we can start to win the first one. The choice is truly ours to make!

Will 2013 be the year of the drone?

Will 2013 be the year of the drone?  This is a question that may define the Af-Pak policy and perhaps how the rhetoric of “Global War on Terror”  ( GWOT) is shaped in the months ahead. With over 3228 people dead in the drone strikes, of whom about 881 are estimated to be civilians, this is turning out to be President Obama’s litmus test as a “moral” leader. Another major criticism of the drone program is that it makes President Obama the Judge, Jury and Executioner, not very democratic, if you think about it. I believe that the coming year is likely to be the year of the drone, unless something dramatic happens and the GWOT is concluded.

The roots of this strategy of using drones to strike hi-value targets by the current administration are in the speech that President Obama gave, in 2009, in which he said:” So let me be clear:  Al Qaeda and its allies — the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks — are in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan.  And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban — or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged — that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” How effective has this strategy been ?

Well, not much according to a new report, released in Sept.2012 by the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (IHRCRC) and Global Justice Clinic (GJC) at NYU School of Law. They point out that the narrative of “surgical strikes” that take out specific individuals is wrong and that the drone strikes are having a counter-productive impact. Their work is based on  nine months of intensive research—including two investigations in Pakistan, more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting.  The report also quotes The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization, which has reported that:” From June 2004 through mid-September 2012,  data indicated that drone strikes killed 2562-3325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.TBIJ reports that these strikes also injured an additional 1,228-1,362 individuals. “

So what?, one might ask. We are just going after the bad guys and there is bound to be some collateral damage in the process. Well, this is precisely the problem. When the “targeted killings” kill about an equal number of civilians and make life unbearable for people in that region, then the local population is likely to sympathize with those very people whom we are targeting as evil. As Robert Pape and James Feldman point out in their book, Cutting the Fuse, the very cause of suicide terrorism is nationalism and the feeling among people that the American forces are “occupying” their lands. This “occupation” by foreign forces unleashes very strong forces of anti-Americanism and nationalism which lead to attacks against American and allied forces. They have shown data, which includes all known cases of suicide terrorism ( including 9/11) that this is the root cause of the problems.

US Drone Strike Statistics estimate according to the New America Foundation

There is intense debate even among President Obama’s supporters about the drone’s effectiveness and how the rhetoric of using them have been counter-productive, as this article points out. The Obama administration has carried out five times as many covert drone strikes as the Bush administration, as this Colbert Report pointed out, not without irony, and Stephen Colbert points out :” So what’s behind the president’s righteous kill spree? Could it be that he’s just gunning for another Nobel Peace Prize?”

Counter-narrative to this criticism is that this is a more effective way of dealing with terrorists, and studies by RAND corporation has shown that drone strikes drone strikes are associated with decreases in both the frequency and the lethality of militant attacks overall and in IED and suicide attacks specifically. While one can question their methods of analysis ( statistical analysis), even the report acknowledges that :” To the extent drone strikes ”work,” their effectiveness is more likely to lie in disrupting militant operations at the tactical level than as a silver bullet that will reverse the course of the war and singlehandedly defeat Al-Qaeda.”

In conclusion, I think the really important question one needs to ask is not whether 2013 will be the year of the drone, but the bigger question : Is the  Global war on terror over? Because the issue of drones is inextricably linked to the GWOT, and unless we wind that down, it is very likely that the drone strikes will continue.