Remember that term?
Weapons of mass destruction…a catalyzing fear of the Bush US Presidency and the driving force behind the Iraq War.
The fear of WMDs was so deep and primal that an almost unprecedented bi-partisan group of US politicians supported the war to find them.
“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” So said Dick Cheney, Republican, and Vice President of the United States, in August of 2002.
“If we wait for the danger to become clear, it could be too late,” repeated Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat, a month later on September 4, 2002.
The hunt for WMDs became frustrating: “If he declares he has none, then we will know that Saddam Hussein is once again misleading the world,” said Ari Fleischer, Whitehouse Spokesperson, on December 2, 2002.
It got even more infuriating when the WMDs simply didn’t show up as advertised, but Ari Fleischer became even more certain of their existence: “We know for a fact that there are weapons there,” he said on January 9, 2003.
We all know the outcome. Or do we? I guess it depends on your world view. Me? I do believe that the intent was there, the threat was real…making the question of whether or not, beyond the words and the rhetoric, there were actual, physical, 3D, real-world WMDs a moot point.
Fast-forward to today.
WMDs still threaten us. There is no doubt of the intent. Some would say growing intent makes the fear real, but I would argue that we are also faced with a new—and equally insidious— WMD threat…one that is inextricably linked to the other.
The WMD threat that so concerns me is Words of Mass Distribution. The notion that, through the lens of the media, digital and other multipliers, we are enabling hatred, evil and other scary intent, thus making the threat of Words of Mass Destruction very real. From Foreign Policy:
…Rwandan radio broadcasts once set the stage for the genocide which killed 800,000 people in one hundred days…There are many lessons to take from the Holocaust. Perhaps the most important one is that when someone (especially a government) threatens to annihilate you, it’s best to take them seriously. Incitement to genocide is always the precursor to genocide. It was so in Rwanda, Germany, and nearly every other instance of mass slaughter.
The Economist framed it this way:
“EVERYTHING is what it is, and not any other thing,” said bishop Joseph Butler. But sometimes we use language in non-literal ways to make a point. In other words, sometimes we need a metaphor: an existing image or conceptual framework repurposed to illuminate another one. Metaphors are crucial to language. We could hardly do without them.
But they also lay traps for the unwary, ….”War” has its uses as a metaphor. Most importantly, it focuses attention: there is no greater national emergency. War calls for urgency, unity and sacrifice. Leaders in wartime can expect a singleness of purpose from their followers that no other situation can command.
But the problem with metaphors is that—by definition—they are not the thing itself. Metaphors are meant to highlight structural similarities between two things, but not exact similarity. Usually this is not a problem…But sometimes metaphors mean different things to different people. It is important that the audience sees the same similarities you do.
So what about the war metaphor?
Read the headlines in the United States…President Trump is at “war” with the media…“As you know,” he’s said, “I have a running war with the media.”
The Economist article continues:
What, then, about “war”? War in its canonical form has state armies on a battlefield trying to control territory. Most of today’s shooting wars are not even that clean cut—America has not declared one officially since the second world war. But worse, politicians have been unable to resist the temptation to declare war on things like poverty (Lyndon Johnson), drugs (Ronald Reagan) or terrorism (George Bush).
Declaring such “wars” is a problem because such a war on a concept is unwinnable: poverty and drugs will never show up and sign a surrender document on the battleship Missouri, as Imperial Japan did in 1945 to end the second world war. Did Johnson defeat poverty? Did Reagan defeat drugs? We certainly know that Mr Bush did not defeat terrorism.
May I add here: will President Trump “defeat” the media? Continuing The Economist article:
Metaphors have real world consequences, as clever psycholinguistic research has shown…rhetoric risks working like a one-way ratchet, leaders trying to outdo each other…Voters listen…The bad guys on the other side will gleefully respond in kind. Without anyone quite having planned it, war is no longer just a metaphor.
And so it goes.
“Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.”
And there you have it.
Throughout history, words have hurt and healed, caused pain and brought pleasure, fueled hatred and planted love.
“Words start wars and end them, create love and choke it, bring us to laughter and joy and tears. Words cause men and women to willingly risk their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Our world, as we know it, revolves on the power of words.” -Roy Williams
Never before have we had the power and the opportunity to spread words in all of their meanings and metaphors as we do today through the amplified and exponential enablement of digital media.
The choice is ours and as much as I value action over all else, Mark Twain was prescient in his analysis:
“Action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often.”
When we post, when we comment, when we argue, when we debate, when we just talk and share…
What do you think?