Sunday, September 11, 2011

Words Still Matter...Even 10 Years Later

I was reading a post by my friend Patty at Reasons for Chocolate in which she quoted Pope Benedict on this Anniversary of 9-11. I was struck by his words [emphasis mine]: 
On this day my thoughts turn to the somber events of September 11, 2001, when so many innocent lives were lost in the brutal assault on the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the further attacks in Washington DC and Pennsylvania. 
I haven't heard the event called a "brutal assault" in a very long time. And so I was reminded of my essay from 10 years ago. I have reposted it the past few years and almost didn't this year. But, thanks to Patty and Pope Benedict here it is again. 


This essay was published in part on Catholic Exchange September 11, 2002. I am publishing it here today as it was originally written shortly after September 11, 2001.






WORDS MATTER
STICKS AND STONES
Remember the old children’s rhyme your mother taught you: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Well, I am going to challenge Mom on the veracity of that little proverb. You see, I have detected a linguistic trend in the press since September 11 that illustrates the fact that words can hurt you! There are many words used to describe what happened that day in New York and Washington. However, I have noticed that the word “tragedy” is used most frequently to describe these events. We often hear of the 9-11 tragedy, the World Trade Center tragedy, even the terrorist tragedy. In fact I did a little search on the web. First I typed the word “tragedy” along with “September 11” in Google’s search engine. It turned up 352,000 hits. Then I went to the ABC News website and searched for the same combination of words. It turned up 100 hits. Finally I went to CNN’s website and found 94 articles using tragedy in conjunction with September 11.

Now, it is true that not every one of the hits necessarily uses the word “tragedy” in direct reference to 9-11, but a large percentage do. Just to be sure, I checked several of the referenced articles and found the word “tragedy” used in reference to September 11 in the body of the articles as well as in the names of links, in letters, and in headlines. My research seemed to confirm my impressions.

THE WRONG WORD
Though there is no doubt that the consequences of the events of September 11 are tragic—the death of young and old alike and of those sent to save the ones in danger; widows and orphans left behind; businesses ruined and landmarks gone in a matter of moments. Yet, the event itself was far more than tragic… “tragedy” is sadly inadequate to describe what was done that day.

Let’s just examine the word. “Tragedy” is given three definitions in my American Heritage Dictionary.  The first is in reference to the literary genre and the third refers to a “tragic aspect or element”. The second definition is the most helpful to our situation. It reads: A dramatic, disastrous event, esp. one of moral significance. The events of 9-11 most definitely have moral significance, and anyone who has seen Ground Zero would say “dramatic” and “disastrous” are relevant descriptions. 

But let me take you back a few months ago. Image it is some time on the morning of Tuesday, September 11 and you have turned on your TV. You flip to CNN or Fox News and you see film footage of a large passenger plane crashing through the top floors of one of the World Trade Center towers. Then you notice the other tower is in flames and you think, though you are not sure, that those things falling from the top floors are not scraps of iron, but people. Now, you would probably not say to yourself “My, that was dramatic!”  You might say, “This is disastrous!” However when you realized that both planes were hijacked, your tone would become more intense. You would be horrified, angry, outraged, you might even swear. I know these were my sentiments as I sat in front of my TV that morning. When faced with that scene, the word “tragic” does not seem to say enough.

BARBARIC TORNADOS
To test out my opinions about the word “tragedy” I consulted my computer’s thesaurus. The words that it gave as synonyms for tragedy were: calamity, misfortune, blight, catastrophe, bad fortune, affliction, grave adversity, suffering, tribulation. These are all great words and no doubt they express the sentiments of many of the people in this country today with regards to 9-11. However, notice they are all pretty neutral when it comes to blame. Each can be used equally well to describe a huge earthquake, or tornado, or an outbreak of a new and deadly flu bug, or a drought. None of these events has a tangible perpetrator—there is generally no one who is culpable for an earthquake or drought. Yet, there were fellow human beings that planned and carried out the events on September 11, and they intended at the very least the consequences that so many are experiencing, and more.

You are probably wondering by now, what word I would suggest to describe the events of that day. Well, I submit that the word atrocity fits quite well. “Atrocious”, according to my trusty American Heritage Dictionary, is an adjective that means extremely evil or cruel; monstrous; exceptionally bad; or abominable. The word actually comes from a Latin word which means cruel. A decidedly more appropriate sentiment than misfortune, or even tribulation.

When I entered “atrocity” in my computer’s thesaurus, it turned up nine synonyms: brutality, wickedness, atrocious deed, cruelty, barbarity, horror, outrage, crime, and inhumanity. These words are the sort that we save for the heinous crimes of terrorists. “Barbarity” doesn’t really apply to a tornado, even a devastating one. But it does fit the murderous act perpetrated by the hijackers on the two flights that demolished the World Trade Center, killing thousands of innocent people.

TRAGIC REPORTING
My proposition is that “atrocity” is a much more accurate word for what happened on September 11 than the word “tragedy”. Though I hadn’t heard it much, I was curious whether anyone in the press was using this word to describe 9-11. So, I tested the same areas on the web. ABC News turned up 9 articles, 2 of which, upon closer inspection, used the word in reference to acts against Moslems. The remainder of those articles used atrocity or a form of it only in quotes, including three by British Prime Minister Blair, and one by President Bush. It seems none of ABC’s reporters were inclined to use the word atrocity, yet “tragedy” turned up 100 hits on that site.

When I searched the CNN website, I found a similar disparity. There were 9 hits with the words “atrocity” and “September 11”, as opposed to the 94 that used “tragedy” with that same date. Finally, I checked Google again. I got 11,600 hits with the word “atrocity” connected to 9-11, as opposed to the 352,000 that came up for “tragedy”.

I realize that my little study is not exhaustive and the numbers might change some if I checked out every hit on all three sites. However, the difference is so great as to indicate the you are many times more likely to hear that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were a tragedy, than you are to hear that they were an atrocity.

JUST WORDS
Why is this so important? After all, they are just words. This is true, but words convey meaning, and, in many ways, the meaning of the words we hear, and the words we use, determine the way we see the world. If we begin to think of September 11 as a tragedy, much like the rain and tornadoes in the south this past month, then we will forget that someone DID this to us. We will, and I submit that we have already begun to, relegate the event to the list of unfortunate events that has effected so many people in our county—like the Great Depression or the latest hurricane that wreaked havoc on a trailer park.

When we cease to see 9-11 as a deliberate attack on our country, we will cease to be angry. Anger itself is neither good nor evil. It is a passion, a natural emotion that inclines us to act or not to act in reference to something perceived as good or evil.  So, when our senses detect something evil, the natural response is anger, and that anger will lead us to act in answer to that evil. Our decision to act or not to act in one way or another, is where we can fall into sin or respond in justice.

CIVILIZED ANGER
In other words, what we do with our anger is the real issue. The fact that we are angry at the sight of atrocious acts of violence being committed against innocent fellow countrymen is praiseworthy; it is a sign that we are human in the best sense of the word. When we respond to our anger with vengeance, a desire for revenge, we cease to live up to our God-given human nature; we submit to our animal instincts. And, we fall into serious sin when we desire to kill or seriously wound as a response to our anger. However, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, it is commendable for us to impose restitution in order to correct vices and maintain justice.  In other words, if anger leads us to find the perpetrator and bring him to justice then we are to be commended.

Not only is there is a place for righteous anger in all civilized societies, but it seems that a society that cannot get angry about injustice is weak and in danger of being taken over by evil men. Yet, if our press is any indication of the nation’s sentiments, we tend to waver between sentimental sadness and bewilderment when we think of 9-11. How should an intelligent, reasonable person  (i.e. a human being) respond to the atrocity of September 11?

A REASONED RESPONSE
First we should recognize it for what it is—an act of violence perpetrated by other humans meant to send a message to us as a country. It means something to the terrorists, and in their world it seems reasonable. Though it may seem senseless to us, it is not so to them, and therefore we can expect the terrorists to continue to act in similar ways. We know that regardless of their feelings of being right, their act itself was wrong, evil, and barbarous. And we therefore have every reason to be angry.

As a country, though, we must channel our anger into a productive reply. If we are to be responsible and mature human beings, in whose care has been placed the future or our country and the world, then we must respond with whatever method is capable of imposing restitution by restoring justice. If that method must be force (not violence, which is by no means the same thing), then so be it.

However, can we maintain the resolve necessary to impose restitution and protect future generations from the atrocities that we have faced this year? If we continue to refer to this event as a tragedy, we will cease to remember that the falling bodies and burning buildings were not the result of some bad fortune, but the result of a deliberate act by another human being. If this happens, we will not have the nerve to respond to the atrocity of 9-11 with maturity, integrity, and well-channeled righteous anger. And when these same men act again, as they most surely will, and more innocent blood is spilled, what will we say to the victims? “How unfortunate for you. I feel your pain.” In fact, we have had eight years of this sort of rhetoric and we have continued to endure such atrocities as the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the bombing of the USS Cole last year, and finally the attacks on September 11. It is the use of the wrong words that is hurting us today. Maybe we should change the children’s rhyme to “Sticks and stones are breaking our bones and words are making it possible.” 

By Carol Kennedy
Copyright 2001

Carol Kennedy is a Catholic free lance writer with an MA in Theology and Catechesis from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the former DRE for the Spiritus Sanctus Academies in Ann Arbor, MI. Carol writes from California. 


NOTE: I reposted this from last year's post but I couldn't figure out how to edit out comments from last year. So....my one comment from Patty is here again for everyone to enjoy. :)

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad that you posted this. Surely, looking back, you can see all of the ironic twists in this article.

    God bless America!

    ReplyDelete