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There must be 500 ways for governments to say “murder”

September, 2010

Thanks to the movies, we’ve become used to the quintessential gangland euphemism for murder. ie., “whack.”

Goodfellas featured this line: “Jimmy had never asked me to whack somebody before – but now he’s asking me to go down to Florida and do a hit with Anthony?” and Donny Brasco gave us: “The army is some guy you don’t know telling you to go whack some other guy you don’t know.”

Truth be known, the world of politics is far more prolific and creative than the mob in its use of euphemisms for murder.

The Nazis were masters of the evil semantic art. All the following terms were euphemisms for genocide: delousing, evacuation, process, final solution, resettlement and special treatment. I particularly dislike the term “concentration camp” because the intent of the Nazis was not so much to concentrate people in an area as to kill them. Hence, for the purpose of clarity, “death camp” should be used instead.

While the process of euphemistic murder may have been “refined” by the Nazis, it was not created by them. In 19th-century Australia, the word “disperse” was employed to replace the killing of aboriginals.

Centuries earlier, the ancient Romans mastered the art of doublespeak. For example, if an enemy of the state was to be executed in Rome, announcements were posted that said of the accused, “They have lived,” and similarly if the Romans “took notice of a man in the ancestral manner,” it meant the poor sod had been executed.

Some modern terms for murder include “terminate” (with or without extreme prejudice) “pacify, “liquidate,” “wet work,” “eliminate,” “disappear” and “neutralize.”

In 1984, the CIA distributed a manual to Contra leaders in Nicaragua that said: “It is possible to neutralize carefully selected and planned targets, such as court judges, police and state security officials, etc.”

Of course, Hamas doesn’t admit to committing “suicide bombings,” but rather talks up “heroic martyrdom operations against the Zionist enemy.” Actually, many people don’t think “suicide bomber” is strong enough and have replaced it with “homicide bomber” and even “genocide bombers,” because the bomber is, in essence, collateral damage in the attempt to kill as many people as possible.

Still another ghoulish euphemism for state-ordered murder is “bush clearing.” This term was employed by the Hutu majority in Rwanda as a euphemism for the slaughter of more than 800,000 Tutsis in 1994.

Probably one of the best-known euphemisms for state-sanctioned murder emerged from the Balkans in the early ’90s. I speak of course, of “ethnic cleansing.” Ironically, it originally didn’t refer to murder.

It was first used in 1981 to refer to the establishment of ethnically “clean” territories in Kosovo by the Albanian majority. It related then to such administrative and non-violent matters as quotas for the Serbian minority.

Today’s sense of ethnic cleansing arose in 1992 in the war in Bosnia. Serbian commanders referred to the operation as cisjenje prostora, “the cleansing of the territory” and the term was used to refer to the taking control of a conquered territory in the final phase of combat. It appears that ethnic cleansing is a time-honoured practice.

The Assyrians in two periods in the 9th century BC and 7th century BC forcibly resettled 4.5 million people.

Writing in 1946 when the full account of Nazi atrocities was unfolding, George Orwell stated in his essay Politics and the English Language: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. ... Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Unfortunately, the wind still seems solid.



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