It is difficult—if not impossible—to discuss important disagreements when language no longer has meaning. When every tax is socialism, and every abuse of police power is fascism, we’ve lost the tools to adequately describe genuine threats to our political system. We can no longer discriminate between the merely troublesome and the genuinely threatening.

    This isn’t a new phenomenon. During the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote that “to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant one was totally unfitted for action.” Many years later, George Orwell would portray corruption of language as an essential tool of the authoritarian state.


So what can we say about the recent Military Commissions Act, passed at the end of September? In seemingly innocuous language, the United States Senate gave the President unchecked authority to use “interrogation techniques” on “detainees.” The Act doesn’t say “unbridled discretion to torture prisoners;” indeed, it says torture remains illegal. It just lets the President define what torture is—and isn’t—and lets him keep the definition secret.


The “detainees” (almost sounds like guests, really) are people who have been designated “unlawful combatants.” And if the Pentagon—using whatever criteria it chooses—says you are an unlawful combatant, then you are. Period. Of course, once you’ve been labeled an “unlawful combatant” you can no longer use habeas corpus to protest your innocence, or to show that there has been some mistake, like with that German businessman the CIA picked up and tortured, who turned out to have the same name as the guy we were really looking for.


    In the world of Orwellian language, this legislation protects our rights. In the real world, however, where there is no remedy, there is no right. When there is absolutely nothing you can do once you are wrongly accused—when a law permits summary arrest and indefinite detention on the say-so of those in power, with no hope of appeal, talk of “rights” is surreal. When there is no punishment provided for violating a rule, it isn’t a rule—it’s a suggestion. 


In the real world, members of the United States Senate spent barely two days discussing a bill to gut time-honored constitutional guarantees that generations of American soldiers have fought and died for. Senators didn’t agonize over this drastic change. They didn’t listen to the decorated military officers who argued that its passage would endanger our troops.

    In a recent column, Garrison Keillor said it best: no one who voted for this bill has any right to speak in public about the rule of law anymore, or to wax poetic about the American Idea. If the government can round up someone and never be required to explain why, then it’s no longer the United States of America. 


And we no longer have the words to describe what we are becoming.