President Bush has spoken again and again to the American people,
alternating messages of condolence with calls to arms, preparing
the nation for "the
first war of the 21st century". But the images his words conjure
date from ancient times: "a group of barbarians has declared war"
on America, he says, and before we know anything about the
terrorists' identities, we know precisely where they come from and
how they behave. Immediately calling to mind the Mongol horde and
the Visigoths that sacked Rome and Byzantium, the word "barbarian"
fans the flames of both racial distrust and high-cultural prejudice;
these associations creep into everyday language as well, where describing
someone as "barbaric" associates their unacceptably churlish or
violent behavior with their status as entirely Other than us.
Indeed, this "us versus them" mentality pervades government rhetoric
of the last week; by linking anti-American terrorists with somehow
"subhuman" ancestors, Bush has rapidly constructed (at least the
idea of) a united American people, with a shared interest and a
common enemy. Is it any surprise that the notion of "barbarians"
was first used to describe Eastern (Asian and African) threats to
Greek state? Barbarians, "babble-speaking" non-Greeks, originally
were differentiated culturally, before being perceived as a military
threat to ancient Greek life. Alexander the Great rose to fame for
his conquest of present-day Egypt and the Persian Empire -- now
Iran. Now, two and a half millennia later, a new barbarian
horde is being evoked in the words of our leaders, in preparation
for a holy war of retribution. Perhaps the question bears asking:
does our anger, as a nation, stem solely from the horrific events
of this week? Or is the coming (seemingly inevitable) conflict being
positioned by our government as the settling of a 2500-year-old
score? More generally: are we being motivated this week as much
by the meanings hidden in everyday language, as by our government's
more overt public statements?
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