Understanding the Power of Words of War

December 1, 2001
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Dawn Rose

“The evil ones have declared war on us and our way of life. They hate freedom and democ-racy. We’re going to smoke ’em out of their caves.” The White House’s verbal portrait of the events of September 11 has been frightfully effective, resulting in a quick and positive response from Congress and the American people.

Judaism has long understood the potency of the spoken word. With words, we construct meaning; we make sense of the universe – from passive permission to active enablement.

Because the U. S. requires public support for what it is doing both here and in Afghanistan, any inquiry into the ethics of a global manhunt from a Jewish perspective must begin by understanding the impact of these words of war and the near-universal acclaim they have garnered.

Politics, even or especially the politics of war, is very much about selling images and ideas. A fundamental principle guides Jewish ethics in this area: Lifnei haiver, lo titian mikshol – “Put no stumbling block before the blind.” (Leviticus 19:14) Interpreted as a sweeping prohibition against using the public’s ignorance against itself, this tenet forbids the use of misleading advertising or sales techniques that prey upon people’s desires, fears, insecurities, and most significantly, lack of knowledge or information.

It is here that the Bush administration has been so bold – in the language with which it has sold this war. The first selling point is that it is in fact a war. Within the weltanschauung introduced with this word, it is logical and appropriate that: the full weight of the military be engaged; “peripheral” issues – social and economic – be tabled; and global alliances be demanded. With war there is always an enemy who must be evil even as we are good. War, however complicated, demands this simplicity, without which we cannot kill with impunity. More, this is a “new” war, the likes of which we have never seen before. Right away the message is that peacetime rules, of necessity, must be suspended. And, with the adjective “new” we learn that the rules developed through painful past history about human rights during wartime might not apply.

President Bush has declared that freedom and democracy are under attack by those who “hate our way of life.” The emotional associations those words elicit obfuscate the impossibly abstract nature of the assertion. Millions of Americans stand, flag in hand, never thinking to ask the most basic and obvious questions: Which freedoms? For whom? What about our way of life could possibly affect distant cultures and economies so adversely?

With these Presidential words – these simplified concepts of hatred – every American feels attacked. With these words, no one is offered appropriate information about the roots of the conflict or the nature of the struggle. Yet Americans are supporting this war, sending our sons and daughters, and promising billions of dollars in funds. Tirelessly, the Administration and the media inundate Americans with visual images that proclaim: to do less is to sully the muddy graves of the World Trade Center victims; to do less is to cowardly ignore this danger to our homeland.

Perhaps the most shameful line the Administration has generated is “this is not a war against the Afghan people.” We know that civilian Afghans will bear the brunt of the war. We are patiently told to learn the difference between intended loss of civilian life (the WTC), and unintended (though anticipated) loss of civilian life (Afghanistan).

Certainly Judaism has long recognized distinctions between accidental and intentional injury and death. However, these distinctions apply to legal responsibility after the fact. Before the act, the Administration announced its decision to precede on a course that, of practical necessity, incurs ‘unintended’ loss of innocent life.

We have been told that we are “at war,” and the implication is made that innocent lives are thus expendable – especially of those people who are not American, not Jewish or Christian, and not the family down the block. We must demand that President Bush call death, death – whether it occurs at home or abroad. We must educate ourselves against the inundating media spin. Only then do we have a chance to discover what our rock-bottom ethical questions in this crisis are and begin to address them appropriately.

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Dawn Rose holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is currently Rabbinic Leader of the Temple of Universal Judaism, NYC, a community founded on the principles of interfaith outreach and dialogue.

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