I recently ran across an old notebook of mine. The first page is dated 9/14/01:
People keep saying—me included—“words fail” at a time like this. Fail to describe. Fail to explain. Fail to comfort. And yet, it seems that we remain tuned raptly to newsless news programs, bouyed only by their ceaselessness—an indicator, we hope, that we ourselves are ceaseless as a country, as individuals.
But I don’t think words fail. I think vocabularies fail. Not in the conventional sense—”What’s the word, um, you know, um…”—but in a national, endemic sense. As Americans we have no national language for vulnerability. We have so very little experience with local devastation. And so when disasters happen, we always seem to return to the phrase “war zone.” I remember in September of 1989 hearing my town referred to as a war zone after Hurricane Hugo struck. We called the Murrah Federal Building a war zone.
Reporters at “ground zero” of the attack on the World Trade Center gasp, “it’s like a war zone down here.” But for most of us, war zones are nothing more than pictures on televisions, photographs from distant dispatches. “War zone” means “foreign,” “destruction,” “death,” “unknown.” But what about countries like Bosnia or Chechnya or Rwanda, in which daily life looks like this? I wonder if they have a more sophisticated vocabulary for describing the destruction of war.
I think I was on to something. In hindsight, I think our limited, nuance-free vocabulary lulled us into a global war on mostly unseen enemies. We took the war elsewhere, hoping to focus the violent energy abroad, where, if we are being honest with ourselves, we think it belongs. So we started one arguably legitimate war. When we didn’t win quickly enough, we changed the name of the enemy, moved the pins on the map, started a new war. 10 years later, our vocabularies have not matured. Threat level. Peacekeeping. Targeted strike. There is a jargony professionalism now about our new language of war, but it has not taught us anything about our own fear, our vulnerability, our way forward. I fear that until we learn to name these realities and understand them, until we learn a common language with the rest of the angry, bruised world, our words will continue to fail.