Call It What You Will

Conservatives sometimes complain about the "language police" on the left who keep them from using the colorful words and phrases they learned at their pappys' knees, when those words and phrases turn out to be offensive to people. But the truth is that nobody pays the kind of careful attention to language the right does. They're forever telling us that the truth of President Obama's radicalism can be found not in his actions but in a thing he said one time, or on the other hand, criticizing him for something he failed to say. (For some reason, Rudy Giuliani was particularly obsessed with this. He loved to say about a speech an opponent made, "He never said the words 'islamo-fascist terror killers!' How can we trust that he understands the world's dangers if he won't say that???") It's a faith in the power of words to change the world and reveal the truth that I'm sure linguists find touching.

From what I can tell, conservatives were getting only mildly pre-angry at Obama for not calling the bombing in Boston "terrorism" (see here, for instance). Needless to say, this is a kabuki of feigned outrage we've been through before, and not that long ago. You'll recall that there was a big to-do over whether Obama had called the Benghazi attack "terrorism," with Republicans insisting that if he had used the word earlier and more often ... well, something would have been different. They're not sure what, but it would have involved us standing tall and not taking any guff.

Words certainly matter, but the idea that if we use the word "terrorism" to refer to a particular attack then we're being strong, brave, and resolute, while if we call it, say, an "attack" then we're being weak and cowardly, is just insane. I'd trace this back to the aftermath of September 11, when conservatives fell all over themselves to laud George W. Bush's "moral certainty," which he expressed by talking like he was a sheriff in a 1950s B-movie western. It suddenly became common for writers on the right to present themselves as brave warriors in the fight against terror, as though bravery wasn't so much about exposing yourself to physical risk as it was about adopting the most bellicose position one could. The courageous man wasn't the one who put his own life on the line, it was the one most eager to put other's lives on the line. And nobody's weaker that someone who uses careful language.

Anyhow, despite some grumbling, conservatives seem almost restrained in how much they're condemning Obama's weakness this time around, especially compared to Benghazi. Maybe that's because we don't yet know if swarthy Middle Easterners were responsible for the Boston bombing, and conservatives are probably hoping the perpetrator of this act doesn't turn out to be a right-wing extremist.

But there is one group of people who were watching particularly attentively for an appearance of the "terrorism" word when Obama gave a press conference this morning: the media. Do a search for articles about the press conference, and every one seems to lead with the fact that Obama used the word "terror" in describing the bombing, which he didn't in his first statement about it yesterday. But really, who the hell cares?

Brian Beutler of TPM zeroes in on the Benghazi connection as the explanation for reporters' interest in the word, arguing that it "instilled bad habits among the people who covered it. The media was listening for that word yesterday because they identified it as a potential source of a future, contrived political controversy; reporters were acting as opposition researchers for the people they cover, and identified a sin of omission." But if even conservatives don't seem overly concerned about it this time, why should anyone else?

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