The war of words and how we come to label Jared Loughner an ‘assassin’
Of all the words used to describe Tucson shooter Jared Loughner, what should we think of “pot-smoking loner?”
Whatever the truth of that phrase, it harkens back to a fascinating, 700-year history of politics, violence and language. We users of English have inherited the word “assassin,” through Italian or French, from an Arab word that means “hashish.”
We can trace the word back to the 12th century, when Christian Crusaders from Europe invented their own version of senseless holy war against the Saracens. A group of Muslim fanatics became known as the “hash users,” either because they drugged themselves in preparation for mayhem and martyrdom, or because the availability of pleasurable drugs was part of the promise of paradise.
The American Heritage Dictionary pins this word history down in a single paragraph:
“… those who gave us the word assassin … were members of a secret Islamic order … who believed it was a religious duty to harass and murder their enemies. The most important members of the order were those who actually did the killing. Having been promised paradise in return for dying in action, the killers … were made to yearn for paradise by being given a life of pleasure that included the use of hashish. From this came the name for the secret order as a whole, hassasin, ‘hashish users.’”
My emotional response to this paragraph, now almost a decade since the suicide attacks on 9/11, is a sadness over how fanatical religious violence back then mirrors the catastrophes of our own time.
Is it responsible practice, then, to call Jared Loughner an assassin? Defenders of the usage could present evidence that the crazed killer used the word “assassination” himself in messages he left behind. More to the point, Loughner did what assassins do: He fixated on a single, charismatic political figure with the purpose of gunning her down.
Our search for a word – the right word – is part of our search for the most challenging of the Five W’s: Why.
In semantic terms, to call someone an assassin does not require a clear understanding of a killer’s intent. When John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan, he did it to impress an actress with whom he was obsessed. It’s the status of the victim that counts. The higher the status – Lincoln, Gandhi, John and Robert Kennedy, Dr. King, John Lennon, Sadat, Bhutto – the more the word “assassination” seems to apply.
Can you assassinate a member of the school board with whom you disagree? With no disrespect meant to the dead or the loved ones left behind, I would prefer the word “killing” or “fatal shooting.” The Columbine killers were bent on mass murder, but they were not assassins.
Tracing usage of the word in English back to 1259, the Oxford English Dictionary defines an assassin as:
“One who undertakes to put another to death by treacherous violence. The term retains much of its original application as to be used chiefly of the murderer of a public personage, who is generally hired or devoted to the deed, and aims purely at the death of his victim.”
The six dead in Tucson were not killed in traffic accidents but at the hands of another human being. The loss, the grief, the agony of those left behind remain as real whether we call Loughner an assassin, a domestic terrorist, a fanatic, a mass murderer or – the informal consensus – a “nut job,” a dismissive, self-deluding designation used by Americans (including me) who prefer to ignore the real consequences of mental illness.
Words take on special significance during the process of trying to answer that question “why.” From the distorted and irrational language that has come from the killer himself, it appears that words – or their failure – mattered a lot to Loughner, at least in that Tower of Paranoid Babel that seems to constitute his mind.
The misuse of words, journalists know, is the fuel for propaganda, scapegoating, misinformation and hate. Try to think of a single hot-button issue in the American culture wars that has not been waged as a war of words, in which combatants battle to gain the upper hand by being first to name the issue.
Think of “death panels” to describe medical advice given near the end of life.
It’s the death tax vs. the millionaire’s tax; pro-choice vs. pro-life; illegal alien vs. undocumented worker; refugee vs. evacuee; prisoner of war vs. enemy combatant. As I wrote in "The Glamour of Grammar":
“The gravity of these word choices weighs heavily on the writer, as it should. For in politics, each term carries ideological meaning, even as it appears to the world in the sheep’s clothing of impartiality. My terrorist, as they say, is your freedom fighter.”
After 9/11, I argued that it was unwise for President Bush to call for a “crusade” against Islamic fanatics in the Middle East, especially since Bin Laden and his ilk already referred to Westerners as crusaders. In 2006 I argued that the news media should not be quick to refer to turmoil in Iraq as a “civil war” because it was so much more than that.
Is the difference between a word and the right word the difference between lightning and the lightning bug, Mr. Mark Twain? Or, in our search for le mot juste, just the right word, do we risk a reduction of logic to the fallacy of the single cause? Shouldn’t we be tuned in to many possible causes?
One antidote to the poison of reductive simplification is to use more language, more descriptors, more names. In Christian theology, Jesus is said to play many roles and carry many names. He is called Lord, the Son of God, the Savior, the Christ, the Suffering Servant, the Anointed One, the Son of Man, the Messiah and many more. One name does not detract from another. Each, in fact, shines another light on the unknowable.
As evidence and opinion continue to pour in, we’ll settle on names for Jared Loughner, and some of them will be wrong. He will be, no doubt, assassin, domestic terrorist, mass murderer, insane killer, and the law will parse those words in the name of justice.
I fear two things most of all. The usual antagonists will choose a brand for Loughner based not on evidence but ideology. And, as these events become framed through politics as usual, it will undermine any effort to focus on an intractable problem: the diagnoses and treatment of the mentally ill in America.
Al-Qaida represents one kind of threat to America; the Oklahoma City bomber another. But there is a third. It seems that every year or so, at places like Virginia Tech and Columbine, deadly violence is visited upon us by people who reveal their insanity and foreshadow their murderous rage through signs we seemed paralyzed to act upon.