“Civilians,” “Military-age males,” and Language Abuse

Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

–George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

A “senior administration official” recently claimed that the number of civilians killed by drones in Pakistan was in the “single digits.” As we’ve all learned by now, he was using a definition of “civilian” concocted to allow him to make such claims. It turns out that if you are killed in a U.S. airstrike, and you are a “military-age male”, you’re not a civilian.

But a definition itself contains words, and they too must be defined. What does the Obama administration regard as “military age” in the countries it targets? 18 – 35? 15 – 50? Does it even have a precise definition? Or would that have the undesired effect of boxing them in?

But that’s not the end of it. Using photographs alone, how can they assess the age of a Hellfire missile-ravaged corpse? Could it be some of these “militants” were actually 12-year-old boys? For that matter, it seems unlikely that they can even determine gender in all cases. Just as they regard “military-age males” as combatants “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent,” is everyone assumed to be male and “military-age” unless proven otherwise?

This is not to suggest that a tightly circumscribed and verifiable definition of “military-age male” would make for a legitimate criterion for judging whether the people we kill were combatants or not. If the dead include infants, women and old men, the assumption that all “military-age males” in the group were “up to no good” becomes absurd, and cruel.

There’s nothing really new here. Recall how Bush assured us “This government does not torture people.” Office of Legal Counsel lawyers had greased the skids for this lie by redefining “torture” to require pain equivalent to that “accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death.” The aim was to permit waterboarding. Obama’s Attorney General seems to have taken lessons from John Yoo, for he redefined “due process” a few months ago as something that the White House can take care of all by itself, with no pesky interference from the judicial branch. And when even Holder couldn’t buy the attempt to get around the War Powers Resolution, Obama found some other lawyers to reclassify the “kinetic military action” in Libya under a heading other than “hostilities”.

Of all the ways the Obama administration has picked up where Bush left off, perhaps the most surprising is its continuing abuse of language. Clearly, we must be vigilant sentence-parsers, and demand that our officials define their terms.

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