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Beware Euphemism in a Time of War

An open letter signed by famous writers decrying Israel’s response to the Hamas attack shows a startling moral obtuseness.

Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Ahmed Zakot / SOPA Images / Getty

George Orwell is forever the patron saint of language and the ways it can become degraded in times of war—when a split occurs between what is being inflicted on human beings, on human bodies, and the words of ideologues who want to keep us from seeing “what is in front of one’s nose,” as Orwell famously put it. His iconic essay on the topic, “Politics and the English Language,” argued that euphemism and jargon and the passive voice can be deployed to hide inconvenient truths. Consider, he wrote, “the comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism.” The professor would not just come out plainly and say, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Instead, he would go for something like this: “While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

A bullet in the back of the head would be lost in all that mishmash.

The world has given us many examples of such disingenuous, vague, and purposely concealing language in the days since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7. I could offer a long catalog of phrases that deny the humanity of Israelis and Palestinians—including Senator Tom Cotton’s insistence that Israel can “bounce the rubble” in Gaza with its bombs, as if children don’t live there, and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s horrific description of Palestinians as “human animals” (apparently he may have been referring only to Hamas, though the distinction was lost). But I want to focus on a subtler yet no less insidious example of language that dehumanizes: an open letter published in The New York Review of Books on Saturday and signed by more than 80 writers who are all past participants of the Palestine Festival of Literature, among them many prominent names, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Richard Ford, Annie Baker, and Eileen Myles. I focus on this example because these novelists and playwrights and poets can be expected, unlike politicians, to be sensitive to the necessity for precision and clarity—words are their vocation—and because the statement they produced, out of an undoubtedly genuine and deep concern for the population of Gaza, would make Orwell spin in his grave.

Two sentences of the 438-word text have haunted me for days. After deploring Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and fearing for Palestinians who are suffering unspeakable horrors, the signatories stop to describe what in their collective estimation happened on October 7 to unleash Israel’s fury: “On Saturday, after sixteen years of siege, Hamas militants broke out of Gaza. More than 1,300 Israelis were subsequently killed with over one hundred more taken hostage.”

To describe what Hamas did as breaking out of Gaza, as if what happened took place in a spontaneous moment of liberation, is to hide the fact that this was by all accounts a sophisticated and highly planned assault. Hamas didn’t break out of Gaza. Three thousand militants with intent and agency murdered as many civilians as they possibly could with the goal of drawing Israel into a brutal conflict, which is, sadly, precisely what is now taking place. Hamas’s leaders wanted to slow down whatever warming was developing between Israel and the Sunni Muslim states and remind the region and the world that in their eyes there is an existential war going on, one that will not stop until Israel is eliminated. This was not breaking out.

But far more upsetting is that passive voice of the next sentence, a passive voice that reveals a staggering moral blindness. Israelis “were subsequently killed.” Did they spontaneously combust? Were they struck by lightning? Fall down dead at the sight of the militants who had “broken out”? How do we explain this construction other than to call it a cruel abdication of responsibility, a decision on the part of these signatories not to assign any agency at all to Hamas, to blot out from sight the semiautomatic weapons and the knives? “Were subsequently killed.” The long history of excuses for every totalitarian ideology, including the one embraced by Orwell’s “comfortable English professor,” can be reduced to that nasty combination of three words, words from minds who simply refuse to confront the uncomfortable reality that the murder of babies and elderly peace activists was committed in the name of a cause they support.

If the signatories’ main concern was the lives of Palestinans caught up in Hamas’s dangerous gamble, it would cost them nothing to also call out Hamas for its crimes alongside Israel for its reaction to them. That passive voice is an assigning of guilt away from Hamas and entirely onto those whom Hamas murdered in Israel. A worldview that sees the Jewish state as a colonizing force also permits violence against the colonizer. An important omission reinforces that this is indeed the worldview at work here. Although the writers demand a “free Palestine” and an end to the bombardment, they spare no additional words asking for the release of the nearly 200 hostages taken by Hamas, other than to acknowledge they were captured. The only way to explain this in a statement that evinces such legitimate humanistic worry for the Palestianians is that the hostages, being Israeli—even the nine-month-old among them—are settler-colonizers and not worthy of the writers’ bother. They may have closed their letter by deploring “the loss of all innocent life,” but that sentiment rings hollow after they’ve made clear whose lives they think have value.

Is it fair to nitpick at a moment when the death toll is rising, when the placement of a verb seems irrelevant next to all this grief? Not only is it fair; I believe it’s necessary. How we describe what is happening makes a difference in the way we process reality, and opens or closes the door to various possible futures. As Orwell put it in his essay, language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” This circularity of language and thought should offer us reason to hope, though. It means, as Orwell wrote, “that the process is reversible.” Words have the power to both grant humanity and take it away—so we should use them carefully, especially now.

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