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What's In A Name?
Published on Friday, April 23, 2004 by
What's In A Name?
by Caroline Arnold

"After days of talks and threats of a military showdown, American officials agreed Monday to call off an offensive in the flash point city of Falluja if civic leaders can persuade insurgents there to turn in their heavy weapons" (New York Times, 4/20/04)

" ... A sign on the wall of sniper school at Camp Pendleton displays a Chinese proverb: "Kill One Man, Terrorize a Thousand. ... "Sometimes a guy will go down, and I'll let him scream a bit to destroy the morale of his buddies," said a Marine corporal [in Fallujah] "Then I'll use a second shot." ... ""The first time you get the adrenaline rush afterward," he said. " ... It felt good to do my job, good to take a bad guy out." " (Marine Corps Snipers Aim to Strike Terror, LA Times, 4/17/04)

" ... Three car bombs exploded in Basra this morning, killing 68 people and wounding 98 ... The toll included 23 schoolchildren ....[The governor, Waei Abdul Latif] said he believed the attacks were the work of an alliance between Al Qaeda and extremists in Iraq" (New York Times, 4/21/04)

In 1991 Akron policemen fired at an unarmed petty thief fleeing barefoot through a residential neighborhood, killing a man sleeping in a nearby house. Zealous local officials tried to prosecute the barefoot burglar for manslaughter.

* * *

The way we name others has everything to do with what we do about them. Names like ‘civilian’ or ‘insurgent’, ‘ally’ or ‘enemy’, ‘cop’ or ‘robber’, ‘patriot’ or ‘traitor’ enable us to separate good guys from bad guys.

And according to a lot of people, as long as it’s a bad guy, any violence against him is justified -- nay, necessary, even praiseworthy. If children are incinerated in a school bus it’s okay, not our fault, because we’re good guys and the bomber was a bad guy, probably al Qaeda. Collateral damage, in the cause of freedom.

But the issue is vexed. Some of us believe that killing bad guys is beneficial, and will ennoble, exalt, strengthen or otherwise benefit the world. Others believe it’s dishonorable, shameful or just wrong to kill people, that we should not decide who deserves to die.

We also have a deep-seated belief that no-one should gain profit or power by killing others. Our very abhorrence of terrorism is based on this principle.

That said, however, the taste of irony overwhelms. Purveying representations of death is the stock-in-trade of our commercial news and entertainment industries and a major source of revenue in our economy. It is also a source of political power. How much has "Showdown with Saddam" contributed to the GDP of the U.S.? How much do Americans spend annually for entertainment depicting torture, explosions, and bloody killings? How many dollars for his re-election has Bush accumulated as "war president"? How many billions do we spend annually for weapons to kill people, individually or en masse?

* * *

In the final scene in John Steinbeck’s WWII novel "The Moon is Down", the German colonel in charge of pacifying a Norwegian coal-mining town is holding the mayor hostage, demanding that he order his citizens not to blow up the railroad tracks:

"My orders are clear. Eleven o’clock was the deadline. ... If there is violence, the hostages will be executed. I will carry out my orders no matter what they are" But the colonel appeals to the mayor: "but I do think, sir, a proclamation from you might save many lives."

The mayor is unmoved: "If I tell them not to fight, they will be sorry, but they will fight. If I tell them to fight, they will be glad, and I, who am not a very brave person will have made them a little braver. It is an easy thing to do, since the end for me is the same."

"You see, sir," the mayor continues, "nothing can change it. You will be destroyed and driven out. The people don’t like to be conquered, sir, and so they will not be. Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars."

When the mayor’s wife asks if they can arrest the mayor, he replies simply: "No, they can’t arrest the Mayor. The Mayor is an idea conceived by free men. It will escape arrest." A few moments later the explosions begin, and the mayor is led out to his death.

In 1942 it was easy to name the good guys and bad guys. But Steinbeck’s book raises different names: ‘free men’ and ‘herd men’ -- names that describe human behaviors, not that assign good or evil, life or death, to people.

Steinbeck also poses a difficult question for our nation: if free men cannot start a war, how did we get into Iraq?

Here in Kent, as we prepare to mark the killings, protests, violence and arrests of past May 4s, we have a new opportunity of renaming. A courageous group has appealed to the community to understand that ideas conceived by free people cannot be arrested, and to treat one another as free people who can engage in peaceful demonstrations without fear of reprisal.

People live or die, thrive or suffer, by the way we name them. Because words mean what we do about them.

Caroline Arnold served 12 years on the staff of Senator John Glenn and is now active in civic and environmental affairs in Kent, Ohio. She can be reached at:  This article will appear in the Kent-Ravenna (Ohio) Record-Courier on Sunday April 25 2004.


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