Language, meaning, and 9/11

From a PBS News Hour interview, broadcast 12 september. Jim Lehrer talks with Martin Espada and others.

Lehrer: How do you read the impact 9/11 has had on Americans?

Martin Espada, Poet: Well, as a poet, I would have to say that 9/11 has changed the language.

First of all, there’s the phrase 9/11 itself. It’s a big abstraction. And we who remember what happened that day have to do whatever we can to make that big abstraction as concrete as possible, so that we truly remember those who were murdered that day, so this does not turn into a memorial by rote, like so many others. And, this way, the dead can truly be honored.

There is another way, however, in which I think 9/11 changed the language. In the name of 9/11, in the name of the war on terror, phrases like weapons of mass destruction and enhanced interrogation have entered our political vocabulary.

These phrases, for me, divorce language from meaning. And, thus, they divorce action from consequence. If you are engaged in enhanced interrogation, you are not engaged in torture. And, thus, we as a society come to embrace torture in the name of security.

I think we have to do whatever we can to combat this tendency in the language. The fact is that this language is used to foster a culture of fear, so that people will, in turn, act against their own interests. And that’s why we’re now embroiled in two wars without end.

. . . . . . .

Lehrer: Do you agree, Mr. Espada, you can’t leave the politics out, and that the symbols will change through the years?

Espada: I agree that it is inevitable that 9/11 will be addressed in political terms.

When we use a word like politicized, I think what we really mean is, will 9/11 be exploited? Will it be used cynically? Will it be used to manipulate people? And I think, to some degree, that is true, especially when we look at the continuing warmongering in the name of 9/11.

As far as the symbols changing, yes, of course, the symbols will change and continue to evolve, as we continue to tell and retell the story. And that’s what we must do. We must tell the story over and over again, and make sure that the story has a human face.

. . . . . .

Lehrer: Do agree, Mr. Espada, that, seven years later, we’re still not  … in a state of war, and that that’s one of the reasons we’re not reacting any differently than we are right now?

Espada: I think there’s some truth to that.

I think, again, to go back to the issue of language, war is another word that has been corrupted. And I remember clearly, after 9/11, the question was posed over and over again, was this an act of war? Are we in a state of war? An act of war usually calls for a military response.

And, yet, I remember something that my father used to say. My father was a community organizer — yes, a community organizer — in New York City in the 1960s and ’70s. He would talk about the war on drugs. And he would say, you know, the war on drugs is really a war on drug addicts.

And I think we have to ask, when we talk about that state of war, war against what? War against who? This big abstraction called terror, is that where the bombs rain down?

Lehrer: So — but, to cut through it, you do not feel like we are in a state of war now, right?

Espada: My government is at war.

Lehrer: OK. But you don’t feel…

Espada: I think we need to start — I think we need — we do have enemies.

Lehrer: All right.

Espada: I also think we need to sit down and start talking to those enemies.


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