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MH17, Iraq, Gaza and the deadly verbal dance around killing people

Tony Blair and Benjamin Netanyahu speak the same language when distancing themselves from the killing of civilians in military operations. EPA/Haim Zach/Israeli government press office

Some years back, award-winning British journalist Robert Fisk wrote an article in which he stated the apparent tautology that “murder is murder”. Fisk was writing on Israel’s policy of “targeted killing”. This concept is sufficiently well-known to have a Wikipedia entry, which records that “targeted killing” is also called “targeted prevention” and “focused foiling”. As this entry shows, Israel is not the only country engaging in “selective assassination”.

Over his long career, Fisk has heard every euphemism for murder and every excuse under the sun for why one act of killing should be condoned and another condemned. He doesn’t buy it – which is why he likes to remind readers that murder is murder.

Words that confront and words that avoid

Language can depict killing as naked and visceral. We have all the words and grammatical structures we need to construe killing as violence, to show it in all its graphic, distressing and ugly horror, and to make visible the perpetrators of the violence.

And we have all the rhetorical resources we need to condemn the killings that bereave families, cut down kids before they reach teenagehood, and snuff out the lives of those whose expertise or happy disposition made a difference in the world. Language can even make us feel the grief of total strangers.

But our brains are very complex things. They allow us to live with any amount of contradiction and hypocrisy we choose. With the help of language, we can deplore some acts of violence, while we ignore, tolerate and even mythologise others.

If the language for condemning violence is strong, direct and unencumbered, the linguistic resources for excusing and obscuring violence are elaborate, intricate and absurdist. Aldous Huxley wrote:

The language we use about war is inappropriate, and its inappropriateness is designed to conceal a reality so odious that we do not wish to know it.

Killing in the cause of war

In Huxley’s observation lies the most important linguistic act for getting away with murder. If you want others to avert their gaze while you get down to a bit of your own killing, or you want them to defend your right to kill, make sure they believe that you are “at war”.

It’s really that simple. Convince yourself, your constituents and the relevant world powers that you are “at war”, and your job is done.

Frequencies of ‘War’ versus ‘Peace’ in Google Books corpus (360 billion words). It shows we talk much more about ‘war’ than about ‘peace’.

“War” is powerful because, in using this word so much, we have collectively built up its many associations. “War” classifies the use of force as between two parties. Even if one party is substantially better equipped with the world’s most deadly technology – think America in Iraq, Russia in Afghanistan, Israel in Gaza – the word “war” makes us see the violence as bipartisan, as a show put up by two equal protagonists.

We associate “war” with “dying” not “killing”. And “war” makes us see violence as purposeful. Naturally, the parties “at war” are entitled to use force to pursue their goals.

Relative frequency of ‘fought and died’ versus ‘fought and killed’ from Google Books corpus (c. 360 billion words).

And if in pursuit of those goals civilians are killed, these killings are not an “atrocity”, but a “tragedy”. Even when humans cause the killings by firing the most lethal weapons ever created into the places where ordinary people go about their daily lives, we see these killings as “collateral damage”, just an unfortunate byproduct of an otherwise rational, legitimate – even noble – aim.

Language of war masks human agency

We accept this killing as in the nature of war. When civilians are killed “in war”, national leaders have a ready-made excuse. In 2003, after coalition air strikes on Baghdad left a marketplace littered with bloodied bodies, then-British prime minister Tony Blair said:

There are, of course, difficulties that have arisen, tragedies and accidents, and we grieve for the lives lost. That is in the nature of war.

Australia’s then prime minister, John Howard, echoed:

In any war some civilian casualties are unavoidable.

And the US Central Command spokesman said, in a similarly solemnic tone:

We always regret the loss of life of any civilians on the battlefield, but that unfortunately is something that still has not been eliminated from war.

John Howard said ‘some civilian casualties are unavoidable’; over 125,000 Iraqis have been killed. AAP/Alan Porritt

Right now, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is up to the same trick, with the add-on that he is blaming Hamas for Israeli forces’ killing of Palestinians. That takes real chutzpah.

“War” is always elaborately dressed. It comes with its own bureaucratic language, its own paraphernalia, its “command and control” structures, its “strategies” and “tactics”, its admirals, generals and air marshals, its endless logistical challenges, its mesmerising high-tech weaponry.

Time and again, experienced journalists fall for war’s finery. They accept the killing of ordinary people as just one part – not even the most important part – of a larger historical and geopolitical drama. They take on a grammar that obscures not only the horror but the human agency that perpetuates the killing.

The killings we condone are “accidental” but “purposeful”. The killings we condemn are “intentional” but “senseless”. When “rebels” or “separatists”, “militants” or “jihadis” kill, their killings are wanton and premeditated. We demand they take full responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

At the same time, we brook no excuses, allow for no mistakes. We deny them the luxury of any larger historical or political framework in which to explain their killing, a luxury we happily afford those who are “at war”.

Killing civilians is wrong

The global outrage over the killing of 298 civilians on flight MH17, apparently by a missile fired by pro-Russian rebels, is deafening. But the killing of Palestinians by Israeli troops in the Gaza strip – now at a figure well beyond the death toll in the fields of the Ukraine – just doesn’t seem to get people as hot and bothered.

Dead Palestinian children are no less dead than dead Dutch, Malaysian or Australian children. They are equally killed – murdered – by missiles made and sold by war profiteers.

If we can’t condemn all killing, then our hand-wringing over the deaths of the MH17 passengers is hypocritical. We are no better than Putin.

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