War on Words

(Mis)labeling isn’t an exclusively Iranian prerogative

Less than a week after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left a bemused and scornful audience at Columbia University, Iran’s parliament voted by a margin of 215 to declare the “aggressor U.S. army and the Central Intelligence Agency…terrorists [who] nurture terror.” Their reasoning might seem dubious—apparently based on the U.S.’s decision to drop atomic bombs 60 years ago—but the vote provides a unique opportunity for American introspection.

The Iranian parliament’s resolution uses the word “terrorist” rather liberally and, given conventional definitions, incorrectly. But U.S. lawmakers should think twice about condemning this propagandist political move. The American government, in conducting its “war on terror” is no stranger to semantic sleights of hand, displaying a tendency to label (or mislabel) just as egregiously as the Iranian parliament.

The Iranian action is a clear response to the US Congress’s recent resolution labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) a “foreign terrorist organization.” Supposedly, Iran’s longstanding support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and its current support for Iraqi insurgents justifies the “T” word. But this argument has many problems, including inaccuracy and meaninglessness.

First of all, calling a state instrument, specifically the recognized army of a legitimate state, a terrorist organization akin to Al Qaeda or Hezbollah goes against the conventional understanding of what a terrorist organization is. We might as well say that the entire state of Iran is a terrorist organization. While this might please some interests and provide a symbolic slap in the face to Iran’s government, it would be ignorant. The army, just like the state, may have some components that support other terrorist organizations (such as training Hezbollah), but this does not mean the entire armed forces are terrorists.

So the declaration is meaningless, especially since it is only a non-binding “sense of the Senate” resolution, which cannot officially influence the president’s foreign policy. The move is generally recognized as symbolic posturing designed to aggravate relations. It also reduces the meaning of the word “terrorism” from actions characterized by their deliberate use of civilian death and terror to further a goal, to a nasty word used to describe those we don’t like.

But this is more than just an argument over semantics. Under Executive Order 13224, the U.S. government can disrupt financial assets of any terrorist organization. Conducting such acts against a sovereign state is essentially an act of war. Labeling the IRG in such a way is potentially tantamount to imposing clandestine unilateral sanctions on Iran using a legal loophole.

And this isn’t the first time the U.S. has engaged in linguistic gymnastics. Perhaps the best known case of disingenuous mislabeling in the “war on terror” is the now-famous term “enemy combatant.” This term has existed since at least World War II, used generally to describe non-uniformed enemy personnel such as spies. With the invasion of Afghanistan, the term was broadened to include those who supported Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and it now seems to include potentially any person picked up by the army during operations. Such labeling allows for the skirting of the Third Geneva Convention, which deals with prisoners of war. Even the Supreme Court has not offered a great deal of clarity on this issue, deciding in 2004 that detaining without trial at Guantánamo was legal, and deciding in 2006 that, in fact, special executive tribunals violated the Geneva Convention. The government’s mislabeling amounts to a deliberate attempt to create legal ambiguity and a screen for the army’s actions.

This irresponsible rhetoric has real harms, for individuals and for international relations. It shouldn’t be a surprise when countries the United States calls “evil” respond in kind with similar posturing and ridiculous assertions. While the Iranian government’s logic is seriously flawed, it’s less easy to dismiss if we consider our own government’s inaccurate name-calling. This mutually disingenuous verbal battle only increases enmity and tension between nations. Before criticizing Iran, even if such criticism is deserved and accurate, we should examine our own misappropriation of language.

Shai D. Bronshtein ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House.