There's an old children's saying that goes, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Personally, I love words. I grew up in a house filled with books and spent many happy hours browsing through the public library each week.
As a word-lover, my favorite TV show these days has to be Comedy Central's The Colbert Report. Colbert and his writers have created a regular segment on the show called "The Word." It features Colbert pontificating as a faux right-winger -- but the real gag is when "bullet points" appear on the screen beside Colbert, mocking and twisting his words. Colbert plays the straight man and never catches on, while the "bullet" character makes wonderful wise-cracks at the pompous pundit's expense.
All funning aside, though, we all know that words can carry a great deal of power. The choice of words can make the difference between friends
and enemies -- between war and peace.
One recent evening Colbert's featured word was clearly a made-up one -- "frenemy." Even though the word doesn't appear in dictionaries (yet), Colbert made headlines last year for coining another brave new word -- "truthiness." It perfectly encapsulated the strange complexity of
these times we live in -- trying to sort out what's real and what isn't -- as we face what the White House has ominously named the "Long War on Terror."
Colbert's newest word, "frenemy," calls to my mind another old saying -- "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Most Americans admit they don't
know much about history. But take a look at American foreign policy since World War II, and you might notice that we've had some strange bedfellows -- and our friendships can sometimes be fickle.
In the 1980s, Donald Rumsfeld was shown shaking hands after making an arms deal with Saddam Hussein -- the former Iraqi dictator was,
after all, the chief enemy of our arch-enemy at that time -- Iran. More recently, President Bush was famously photographed holding hands with
Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia at the Crawford ranch -- even though Saudi Arabia was the nation where nearly all the 9/11 hijackers originated.
America's alliances can shift for complicated reasons. Yet when we befriend a nation because it is the enemy of our enemy, there will always be unintended consequences or "blowback" -- a brilliant word coined to describe what can happen when these international winds shift -- when America's friends and enemies change places.
"Habeus corpus" is another funny sounding word -- or phrase, to be precise -- that may not mean much to you. But if you or a loved one are ever locked up on suspicion of a crime, you'll want to know
this Latin term, which means "to have the body" or be free from imprisonment, unless charged with a crime. The U. S. Constitution
says the government can't take the right of habeus corpus away -- except in very limited circumstances.
The Bush administration tells us that this current threat is different --that we may have to make some trade-offs for our nation's safety. But when our nation's chief law enforcer, Attorney General Alberto
Gonzalez, recently told the Senate that the U.S. Constitution "makes no express grant of habeus corpus" -- to me, that was beyond the pale.
Mr. Gonzalez reads the Constitution to say that just because habeus corpus can't be taken away, that doesn't mean it exists as a "right" in
the first place. This defies logic -- not to mention centuries of legal tradition. And when our nation's thinking narrows down to a siege mentality of "us against them" -- we may be at grave risk of giving up
this essential freedom that defines us as Americans.
It's a dangerous thing to say that the president or attorney general can decide to lock someone up indefinitely -- without even letting a judge hear any evidence of guilt or innocence.
After all, our U. S. law and the right of habeus corpus are based on the Common Law of England -- where 800 years ago the noblemen rose up against the tyrannical King John and forced him to sign the Magna Carta.
They took away the king's right to lock up someone he didn't like and simply throw away the key -- and in so doing, they brought forth our
modern era of laws and governance.
Benjamin Franklin has been credited with saying, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase temporary safety deserve neither -- and may lose both." If we allow this precious right of habeus corpus
to slip away because of our fear of those we call terrorists -- we have made a true devil's bargain.
The enemy of our enemy sometimes turns out not to be our friend. Kings and presidents do not always pick and choose wisely. And unwisely chosen words can cause our enemies -- and even former friends -- to use their
"sticks and stones" to "bring it on" against us. We Americans must pick our words -- and our fights -- very wisely if we want to keep
our liberty at home and to avoid endless war.
Ultimately, words can hurt us very much indeed.
Sarah Shelton White is a family law attorney, free-lance writer, and self-described poet-philosopher living in Longview, Texas.