A few years ago, while checking into a ''W" Hotel, I asked the clerk what the W stands for. She shrugged, ''Whatever." The word so perfectly matched the insouciance of her manner that, for a moment, I believed her. The tossed off expression ''whatever" captures the mood of a contemporary minimalism, making it a fit inspiration for a mod hotel chain, where the understatement even of decor is itself overstated.
Every few years a new expression enters the common usage, language's method of giving form to the particularity of each era's attitude. Young people are the custodians of this function of expression, leading the way with words and phrases that define the new. A generation ago, the words ''never mind," with the comic Gilda Radner as its tribune, caught the spirit of disappointed expectation that went with a crushed economy and the social dislocations that followed Vietnam, Watergate, busing.
We Americans of the early 21st century say something essential about ourselves by responding to a vast range of questions and experiences with the supreme offhandedness of ''whatever." The word suggests indifference, lack of intensity, a refusal to commit, a rejection, above all, of conflict. The word proclaims a refusal to be responsible. ''Whatever you say" is the implication. Whatever you want; whatever you think. There is surrender in the word, a lack of will, which points to a lack of selfhood.
At her court martial last week, according to The New York Times, Private First Class Lynndie R. England told the judge that when pressed to join in the humiliating of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, she responded by saying, ''OK. Whatever." In that case ''whatever" consisted in an abandonment of human decency, but it assumed England's prior abandonment of her own moral core. The word ''whatever" as prelude to her acts revealed that, before humiliating the prisoners, she had humiliated herself.
But, speaking of Iraq, a spirit of ''whatever" animates those much further up the US chain of command. Indeed, England and her fellow guards at Abu Ghraib were not the originators of that spirit, but merely transmitters of it. When President Bush announced the effective American abandonment of normal restraints in the global war on terror, he was saying, ''Whatever it takes." Whatever we have to do. We will be bound by nothing but our own will, accountable to no one. Forget Geneva. In order to win, we will do whatever.
That the Abu Ghraib guards forced their naked prisoners into a pyramid is the perfect symbol of their own dilemma now, for the pyramid that punishes them is an authority structure that exempts those on top from responsibility for the corrupted spirit the guards embodied.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld does not, to my knowledge, use the word ''whatever," but his body language offers the physical synonym for it, which is the shrug. Again and again, in press conferences and interviews, Rumsfeld responds to the questions that inevitably arise from the disastrous policies he pursues in Iraq by lifting those boney shoulders of his. Typically, he then grimaces, before letting his shoulders fall. If Rumsfeld takes offense, it is not from the bleak outcomes of his decisions, but from requests to explain them. The shrug is the secretary's all-purpose answer, whether the question is about the preparedness of troops, the failure of intelligence, the methods of combat, the loss of Iraqi life, or even the deaths of his own soldiers. Shrug. Grimace. Shrug. The pyramid shrugs.
The US Army has been gutted by this war, Iraq has been reduced to chaos, America has been made the enemy of a large part of the world, all of which draws from the nation's leadership expressions of institutional indifference. The top of the pyramid protects itself, and weight falls only on the bottom.
When a youngster says ''whatever," she implies she doesn't really care. By now, in this unfolding tragedy, that is exactly what Rumsfeld has conveyed. Has he lost a night's sleep? One of these days, he will announce his retirement, receive honors, and walk away, leaving wreckage in the wake of his service.
As a matter of personal principle, Rumsfeld should have resigned a year ago, accepting responsibility for the grotesque betrayal of trust that has defined his tenure as secretary of defense. The revelations of Abu Ghraib were but one instance that should have prompted such an act. But that assumes the idea of personal principle, which has itself been abolished in Washington, the city of whatever.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe. His most recent book is "Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War."
© 2005 Boston Globe