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World Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card August 13, 2006

Lies and Catastrophes

I think it's about time we remembered that words are supposed to have meanings. It's sort of a quiet agreement among all the speakers of a particular language, that you try to use a word according to its agreed-upon meaning.

For instance, I recently heard a Democratic congressman refer to the War on Terror -- specifically, the Iraq campaign -- as "catastrophic."

He seemed to be a reasonably educated guy. I think if a doctor told him, "What you have is a catastrophic illness," he would understand what the word meant and prepare for death or permanent disability.

Or if somebody said, "The earthquake was catastrophic," he would immediately assume a high level of damage and loss of life compared to the kind of temblor that people in California are quite used to -- the noncatastrophic kind.

There are wars that are catastrophic. For instance, the war in Rwanda was catastrophic, at least for the unarmed Tutsis who were set upon by their neighbors.

Or the wars in West Africa, where warlords cut the arms off children. Monsters unleashed the most hellish kind of war on a civilian population. That's catastrophic.

Or you might use the word to refer to World War II. The Japanese invasion of China had catastrophic effects; later, the Japanese themselves suffered military catastrophe -- even if it ultimately led to democracy and prosperity. Ditto with Hitler -- he inflicted catastrophic war on eastern Europe; then Germany suffered catastrophic defeat, especially at the hands of the Russians; and finally, eastern Europe suffered the catastrophe of 44 years of Communist Russian occupation.

In reference to those wars, the word "catastrophic" is well within the meaning of the word.

Catastrophe in Iraq?

It's hard to see, though, how the Iraq campaign is catastrophic.

Not for the civilians of Iraq. From the first moment of the war, their death toll was lower than it had been under the rule of Saddam Hussein. Few indeed are the Iraqis who wish they had their former government back again. Our rules of engagement made it the cleanest war in history, in terms of civilian damage caused by an invading army.

Was it a catastrophe for us? Every loss of an American soldier is devastating to the families involved, but catastrophe is a word that requires there be widespread sudden damage. In fact, the rate of loss, compared to the number of soldiers involved has been remarkably low. "Catastrophic" is a word that would describe, for instance, the devastating defeat suffered by the U.S. Army in North Africa in World War II, where the stupidity or indolence of the commanders led to more casualties and losses due to capture in a few days of German attack than we and our allies in Iraq have suffered through the entire campaign.

So what was actually meant by this Democratic spokesman's use of the word "catastrophic"?

He was selling something.

He was trying to persuade the American people that the Iraq War was a dire mistake, a disaster. And we can end the "catastrophe" right now, by withdrawing our troops by the end of the year.

Now, that would be a catastrophe. First, all the people who have taken bold action for democracy in Iraq would be left high and dry in the tribal and religious war that would certainly ensue. The citizens of Iraq would be slaughtered by local enemies who think nothing of blowing up each other's mosques, weddings, and funerals.

Second, it would be a catastrophe for the United States, since all our enemies would be greatly emboldened by such a proof of our irresolution. Here's the lesson they would learn: If you kill American citizens and soldiers long enough, they give you everything you want. Since they were killing Americans before we liberated Iraq, it is hard to imagine that they would stop.

The only reason people even imagine that withdrawing our troops from Iraq would end the war between us and Islamo-fascism is that they think we are somehow the cause of the war. We were bad, and so they hate us; if we become good, then they will be nice to us.

This is not at all true. We were prosperous, and so they hated us; even if our prosperity falls in ruins, they will still hate us; we are their great shaitan, their great enemy, and withdrawing our troops would prove to them that Allah rewards their murderous actions with victory.

It would not end. Catastrophe for Iraq, and a long, steep, deep decline for our fortunes in the world.

Another Misused Word

Here's another word that seems to have changed meaning: "lie."

I keep hearing people of the Left calling President Bush a liar.

Now, this is funny, since these same people just loved Bill Clinton, who is and always was a liar, right down to the point of pleading guilty to perjury. But that wasn't a big deal to the Left, because it was their boy doing it.

Yet "Bush lied to us" seems to be the message they're trying to pound home to the American people -- along with "the Iraq War is a catastrophe."

Is there anyone who doesn't know what "lie" means?

It means to say something that the speaker knows is not true.

Knowledge and intention are everything in defining a lie.

Not all lies are even bad. We all know perfectly well that lies are part of the lubricant of society when they consist of kindly-meant statements like, "Nobody will ever notice that little stain," or "You played the violin wonderfully," or "You look great in that color."

The intent is not to do harm, but rather to encourage.

There's another good kind of lie: The lie that helps conceal actions that are vital to our national defense. The military tries to conceal its intentions from the enemy; our watchmen try to conceal from terrorists the means we are using to catch them before they can kill Americans. It would be insane to tell the truth about such things -- it would imperil us all.

Again, the intent is not to do harm, but rather to protect.

Generally, the lies we hate are the ones that are designed to do direct damage, or to deceive people into taking a course of action that is not to their benefit, or to conceal wrongdoing.

The smear, the con, the coverup.

Smearing lies like Hilary Clinton's calling everyone who was appalled by her husband's perjury "a vast right-wing conspiracy" when she knew perfectly well that her husband was guilty and that it took no conspiracy to make decent people, of the left and the right, sick at his behavior.

Coverup lies like Bill Clinton's perjury, designed to cover up his mistreatment of an employee and his betrayal of the feminist principles he supposedly upheld.

Cons like the repeated claim that the War in Iraq is a catastrophe that can only be ended by a unilateral withdrawal.

But where are the supposed lies of President Bush? The one we hear about most is his "lie" that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

What they don't have is even a shred of evidence that Bush knew or had reason to believe that no weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq. Everyone believed that Saddam was close to achieving nuclear weaponry. Everyone knew for a fact that Saddam had stocks of poison gas which he had already used in battle and against civilian populations.

It was not a lie for Bush to state the information available to him and to all the intelligence services of other countries: That Saddam had poison gas, was pursuing bioweapons, and had a nuclear program designed to give him nukes.

Saddam's own behavior, refusing to allow untrammeled inspections, did not look like the actions of an innocent man.

It turned out that there was no serious nuclear threat from Saddam. But the fact that we did not find the poison gas did not mean he never had it -- we know he did. What it proved was that he either destroyed it, concealed it, or moved it to another country -- with Syria the most likely candidate.

The most suspicious fact is that we found no evidence of the destruction of the poison gas. There would have been no reason for Saddam to conceal such destruction -- he could have invited international observation of such actions and the world would have applauded.

Poison gas is not destroyed without leaving behind evidence. The lack of evidence of poison gas when we invaded Iraq does not suggest its nonexistence.

So at the time President Bush claimed that we needed to remove Saddam from power because of the weapons of mass destruction he possessed or was about to possess, he was not lying. No one knew and few even suspected that there would be no such weapons or weapons programs inside Iraq.

There are other accusations: That Bush is lying about what goes on at Guantanamo; that under the powers of the Patriot Act, Bush is violating civil rights of Americans and lying about it to cover up his persecution of innocents; that Bush is lying when he claims the NSA surveillance of phone calls and emails was directed solely against enemies of America.

Such accusations are made without any proof; if they had evidence, you can be sure that our press would make as big a deal of it as the aberrant behavior of some Americans at Abu Ghraib.

When you don't have evidence, yet make wild and terrible accusations, that is called a "smear," and it is one of the bad kinds of lie. It is fair to say that you worry that there might be bad things going on at Guantanamo, or under the Patriot Act, or through the surveillance of foreign phone calls and emails. But until you have evidence, to say that President Bush is doing these things is, in fact, a lie.

President Bush is accused of lying to "cover up" wrongdoing that nobody can prove has even taken place. Honest people might disagree about whether some of these things even are wrongdoing -- for instance, whether the detention and questioning that take place at Guantanamo are necessary or legitimate.

And to conceal a surveillance program that allows us to act as the British did in their early detection of the recent plot to blow up airplanes may involve lies, but they are not the lies that sensible people hate. Whatever the American people are told, our enemies also learn; to conceal it from our enemies requires that it also be concealed from the people. We tolerate those lies -- indeed, most of us are grateful for them -- because we'd rather have such surveillance hidden from us and not lose loved ones in blown-up airplanes, than to know the whole truth, while our enemies, forewarned, are not caught until after they kill more of us.

So Bush has not, as far as we know, told any selfish lies; he has committed only the deceptions we trust our government to carry out on our behalf.

While Bush's enemies pound us constantly with smears of a man who, by all the actual evidence, is a decent man who keeps his word and acts for the good of the country, as best he understands it.

There are liars in American life. And it's important to name lies for what they are.

But we who listen to these claims need to keep in mind that when people make verbal attacks on someone in public life, there is no longer any law to protect the victim if the attacks are not true.

The only protection of the innocent comes from our good sense and integrity. When a President is called a liar, or when a war is called catastrophic, our obligation is to look at the words and decide if they are accurately used.

Often there are legitimate differences in opinion about whether a particular word is aptly chosen to describe something or someone. There are also legitimate differences about which words and actions are important and which can be disregarded.

But some words have specific meanings, and when they are misused, their meanings distorted or contradicted, in order to deceive us, then we can only call that a lie.

For instance, that Democratic congressman might answer me, "I called the Iraq War catastrophic, because look how it's dividing our country! Who are you to say what I think is a catastrophe?"

To which my answer is: You made no such explanation. You did not redefine the word. You used it without explanation; clearly your intent was for us to take the word as it is normally used. By that definition, sir, you simply lied about the Iraq War.

Likewise, the many people who accuse President Bush of lying might say, "Your demand for evidence is ridiculous -- the lack of evidence that Bush knowingly deceived us merely shows how effective his deception really is."

To such reasoning, there is no answer. It's like the old joke: "Why are you ringing that bell?" "To keep away the elephants." "There aren't any elephants around here." "Then it's working, isn't it?"

When you take the lack of evidence as evidence of successful deception, you are well down the road to insanity.


Let's look at two more words that are in constant use, but under absurd redefinitions: "Divisive" and "partisan."

How many years now have we heard Democrats in Congress accusing the Republicans of being "partisan" -- when it is the Democrats who so often vote as a perfect bloc, enforcing party discipline in a completely partisan way?

And "divisive" -- it is to laugh. Time after time, President Bush has tried to build consensus, to persuade, to compromise on various proposals. His opponents refuse even to consider his proposals, answering him with invective -- and then, pointing to their own hate-filled language, they call him divisive.

Like little children who knock down their own tower of blocks and then turn to an innocent bystander and scream, "Look what you made me do!"

This is, in fact, the prevailing pattern on the American Left right now: Accuse the other guy of causing what you yourself have done.

All through the blatant Democratic attempt to steal the presidential election in Florida by a selective recount of overwhelmingly Democratic counties and undemocratically discarding the laws of Florida, they accused the Republicans of trying to steal the election.

The Democratic minority in Congress is the most uniformly partisan bloc we have seen in generations -- but they accuse the Republicans of partisanship, even though they don't force their members to vote the party line.

And the opponents of President Bush fill the air with irrational hatred, and then blame their target for provoking them.

Words with Meaning

There is such a thing as truth, and it needs to be told. For instance, despite the sharp blows to our economy from the recession that began at the end of the Clinton presidency, from the economic disruption of 9/11, and from soaring oil prices, the economy is performing surprisingly well under President Bush.

Despite the relentlessly negative coverage of the war, Iraq is prospering and is one of the freest nations in the Muslim world -- even under foreign occupation. The insurrection is not popular in the country as a whole and thrives only because of support from Iran, Syria, and some portions of the Sunni minority that prospered most under Saddam.

Despite the accusations, President Bush has not abridged the civil rights of Americans in a way that differs significantly from actions that previous presidents have taken in wartime.

Despite the claim that President Bush has banned research on stem cells, all he has banned is federal funding of research on new lines; private funding is not restricted in any way.

And on and on. False claims are made about President Bush which, when examined according to what words really mean, simply disappear in smoke, or fall into the category of "areas where good and smart people disagree."

Has President Bush made mistakes? Of course. But they were just that: mistakes. We can argue about whether he has been a good President.

But we are at war, with enemies who hate us because we are who we are. Since we have no intention of reforming ourselves into a Taliban-like Muslim state, we will never please them. All we can do is deprive these terrorists of their safe havens and financial support.

This President's policies have moved us substantially toward that goal; a repudiation of our military effort in Iraq and a premature withdrawal of our forces only begs the world to become even more dangerous for Americans everywhere, including our own shores.

The enemies of this President lie by calling him a liar, a divider, and this war a catastrophe. And if, through their lies, they convince the American people to turn Congress over to them in the next election, then we will have a good chance to see what "catastrophe" really means.

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