Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Reactions to Cheney's speech at the American Enterprise Institute (Part II)

In his speech at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday, former Vice President Cheney made the following suggestion.
The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work, proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people.
I don't want to devalue the difficult work of intelligence officers or to question their dedication to their jobs or the country they serve, but Mr. Cheney's assertion sort of reminds me of an old elephant joke.
A: Why do you have a banana in your ear?
B: It keeps elephants away.
A: There are no elephants in this part of the world.
B: You see! It works!
Recall that Mr. Cheney's speech yesterday was part of an on-going series of public speeches defending the actions of the former administration, which he served, and suggesting that the current administration's approach to terrorism is insufficient. Consider the following from yesterday's speech:
Behind the overwrought reaction to enhanced interrogations is a broader misconception about the threats that still face our country. You can sense the problem in the emergence of euphemisms that strive to put an imaginary distance between the American people and our terrorist enemy.

Apparently using the term war where terrorists are concerned is starting to feel a bit dated. So henceforth we're advised by the administration to think of the fight against terrorists as, quote, overseas contingency operations.
It is striking that Cheney calls "overseas contingency operations" a euphemism, right after referring to "enhanced interrogations" himself, but the slippery definition of euphemism may have to wait for another post. For today, I want to point out that this entire line of discourse is based on the assumption that something terrible would have happened were it not for the actions of the Bush administration, including "enhanced interrogations" and other controversial activities. The "entire line of discourse" I refer to includes not just Mr. Cheney's recent remarks, but also expressions by other politicians, journalists, and ordinary people that the Bush administration "kept us safe."

There are two problems with this presupposition. First, if the claim is that there were fewer than two attacks on US soil in which thousands of people were killed during the time that President Bush held office, virtually every US president can make the same claim. (Critics of the Bush administration suggest that the notion that there were no attacks after 11 September 2001 is not true. Examples here and here.) Second, and more to the point, there is no evidence that actions undertaken between 2001-2008, such as "enhanced interrogations", "extraordinary rendition", or operating the prison at Guantanamo Bay specifically prevented any attack. At least two people employed by the US government during those years, former State Department lawyer Philip Zelikow (PDF here) and former counterterrorism agent Ali Soufan, have suggested that these techniques were either unnecessary or counter-productive.

An additional problem is in the nature of presupposition itself. The idea that the United States would inevitably be attacked is seldom asserted overtly. Rather, assertions that a terrible harm was averted are built on an implicit assumption that the threat of harm exists. I admit that former Vice President Cheney probably knows more than I do about the existence of potential threats to the United States, though it is highly unlikely that he knows more about such threats than members of the current administration do. In any case, though, what I lament is harm to public discourse caused by presupposed, ill defined notions of reified threats.


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