Another week, another series of school and university shootings in the US, and another chance to hear phrases such as "active shooter" and "campus lockdown" repeated over and over by police, school administrators and journalists. These phrases – chilling in their clinicalness – are not only stark examples of the militarization of the language of everyday life, but also reminders of how the language used to describe actual US military aggression has been influenced by the neutral, image-conscious world of public relations.
What makes expressions such as "active shooter" and "campus lockdown" so disturbing is not just the regularity with which they are now uttered and written, but the huge disconnect between their militaristic tone and the contexts of their use. These are phrases you would associate with war, not university campuses dedicated to the enlightenment of our youngest residents. There is a particular, macabre horror in places of learning being converted into battlefields, and that horror is only intensified when the words used to describe it are so brazenly militaristic. "Active shooter," in particular, is both striking and absurd. If there are "active shooters" are there also "inactive shooters"? Are we all potentially active shooters in the making?
But, such is the nature of a culture of violence. And if the first casualty of war is truth, the second might be language.
We are surrounded by phrases devised to convert the grotesque and unpalatable into the everyday and banal. When the US recently bombed a hospital in Afghanistan, the scores of dead innocent civilians were not described as such, they were "collateral damage." When young men and women are killed by allies on the battlefield, it isn’t negligence, it is death by "friendly fire." When terrorist suspects were hunted down by the CIA and flown to secret locations in countries with more flexible attitudes towards human rights, it wasn’t state-sanctioned kidnapping, it was "extraordinary rendition." And, when we waterboarded suspects – in violation of our own constitution and international law – it wasn’t torture, it was "enhanced interrogation."
In addition to banality is militarism. Residents of the US have been engaged in numerous wars over the years: the War on Drugs, the War on Crime and the War on Terror (to take but three examples). As these terms are sexy and emotive, the media were more than willing to latch on to them. The problem, of course, is that they say little or nothing about who the wars were against, what they will cost, how long they would last, what tools we would use to fight and to what extent our rights would be curtailed during the conflicts. These titles also served another important function: forced compliance. War is a black-and-white thing. It is Good versus Evil. You are against the War on Drugs? Then you support drug dealers. You are critical of the War on Terror? Then you side with radical, anti-democratic extremists. Even our policies had titles that made them impossible to oppose. You are against the Patriot Act? Well, you know what that means.
When journalists uncritically parrot all of these terms as if they are neutral and unproblematic, then they participate in the mainstreaming of an ultimately destructive worldview. While it is simple to dismiss words as just that – words – we should recall how language was weaponized in the hours and days after September 11, 2001. The groundwork for war was as much rhetorical as it was military.
What we have witnessed over the past decade in the US is a perverse switch: Everyday life is now saturated with the aggressive language of warfare, while the lords of war have absorbed the language of the everyday in an attempt to manage and sanitize our image. As the US struggles to come to terms with an epidemic of mass shootings, one place to begin is the rejection of any language that resigns us to accepting the inevitability and normalcy of violence; and, in addition, any language that, in a cynical, Orwellian fashion, airbrushes the victims of aggression from our national history.