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The Global War on Whatchamacallit

Terrorism euphemisms of the Obama Era As the economy-along with most prospects for the future of humanity-nosedived off the cliff during the...

Terrorism euphemisms of the Obama Era

As the economy-along with most prospects for the future of humanity-nosedived off the cliff during the Bush years, one stock soared steadily upward: that of the company known as Euphemisms Inc.From compassionate conservative on to regime change and all the way up to the surge, it seemed that anything worth saying was worth saying deceptively and euphemistically. Who needs religion when you can have faith-based initiatives? Why torture when you can apply enhanced interrogation techniques? Illegal wire-taps are so crude and passé when warrantless surveillance is available, and extraordinary rendition just sounds more spiffy than let's-ship-these-bastards-overseas-to-be-interrogated-with-the-finest-freedom-sticks.Euphemism-watchers-of which I am the self-appointed leader, as the only euphemism columnist in the known galaxy, for Visual Thesaurus -may have thought the Obama administration would ring in a truthier, franker, less evasive era. We can now say, with both sadness and a giggle, we thunk wrong.


The same magic wand that turned 2008's toxic assets into today's legacy assets has sprinkled euphemism dust on terrorism, creating two restaurant-quality, deluxe-showroom, Bush-esque terms that should assuage any last, lingering fears that comedians will be out of work in the brave new world: man-caused disasters and overseas contingency operations. Turns out, when it comes to terror and declaring whatever on it, euphemisms are a bipartisan political byproduct, reminding us all of George Carlin's observation that the word bipartisan usually means "some larger-than-usual deception is being carried out."Man-caused disaster started attracting both hub and bub last month. Among other uses, Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano discussed the term:"I presume there is always a threat from terrorism. In my speech, although I did not use the word ‘terrorism,' I referred to ‘man-caused' disasters. That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur."While we all could use a break from the politics of fear that sent so many of us scurrying under the collective kitchen table, the politics of "huh?" are barely an improvement. The slighting of potentially peeved female terrorists aside, comparing terrorism to natural disasters like hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, floods, and tsunamis isn't just a case of apples and oranges: this is more like apples and hand grenades, which taste so unappealing when served with pancakes.The other term that Obamaniacs have been trying to spread, in a performance worthy of Gretchen's campaign to make fetch the hottest new buzzword in Mean Girls-is overseas contingency operation. Here it is used by Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag on Feb. 26: "The budget shows the combined cost of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and any other overseas contingency operations that may be necessary." Among many other recent uses, The Washington Post quoted a memo of disputed origins that said, "this administration prefers to avoid using the term 'Long War' or 'Global War on Terror' [GWOT.] Please use 'Overseas Contingency Operation.'"As a terror-war substitute, overseas contingency operation can fry all but the most potent decoder rings, but even a noseless ninny like Michael Jackson could tell you this term stinks of doublespeak. That pungent odor might be caused by the tell-tale, three-word form, so similar to some of the most euphemistic expressions I've ever seen. These include intense greeting interaction (baboon handjobs, as documented in a real study), faulty male introspection (dudes who need to be stabbed with the clue knife), and synergy-headcount reductions (firing folks). A word to euphemizers of the future who hope to go undetected and un-pooh-poohed: foreswear the three-word form! It's as revealing of true intentions as the Boy Wonder's spandex.Of course, it's easy to poke fun and difficult to offer solutions, which is why I so seldom offer solutions. But just because these euphemisms for the Global War on Terror are as goofy as a dog in a Tinkerbell costume doesn't mean that expression doesn't need to be taken behind the barn and shot.Euphemisms emerge where metaphors fail, and that "War on X" construction (which is a snowclone, now that I think about it) has consistently brewed vats of fear while producing only a shot glass of sense, at best. Other substitutes have tasted just as malarkey-ish. Donald Rumsfeld's Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism (or MILF, for short) was deemed ridiculous on arrival, sounding like the work of a student who went thesaurus-happy. Long War is a term that pleased only those who enjoy their wars never-ending and generation-spanning-never a vigorous demographic.Can't we rustle up some metaphors that aren't too broad (war) or too innocent (natural disaster) or too preposterously euphemistic? Terrorism is really a type of crime, so maybe we need some creative cops to help us out. Where's an officer when you need one?

Illustrations by Will Etling