Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 11, 2009

“Man-caused disasters”

Filed under: Humor — by Philip J. Palin on April 11, 2009

Regular readers have referred to my ready use of the alliterative… with both raves and ridicule.   So you will not be surprised that when rating risks, I often write of, “natural, accidental, and intentional” origins.

Secretary Napolitano’s stubborn avoidance of “terrorism” in her prepared  testimony to the House Homeland Security Committee did not, as a result, especially trouble me.  But her choice of  “man-caused disaster” did strike me as an awkward replacement.

I was not alone.  The following rumination by William Safire will appear in tomorrow’s Sunday Times Magazine.  It is part of a longer column really worth a fun-filled read.

WAR ON MAN-CAUSATION  by William Safire

When Janet Napolitano, the new secretary of homeland security, testified before Congress, she caused a stir by ostentatiously avoiding the use of a certain familiar word central to the mission of her department: terrorism. A reporter for the German magazine Der Spiegel asked, “Does Islamist terrorism suddenly no longer pose a threat to your country?” Napolitano replied, “I presume there is always a threat from terrorism,” and also noted that she had referred to “man-caused disasters.” She added, “This is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear.”

The Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan commented: “Ah. Well, this is only a nuance, but her use of language is a man-caused disaster.” Noonan makes an excellent point of light: a word is not the thing itself. (That was the message of the general semanticist Alfred Korzybski, famous for “a map is not the territory.”) Renaming terrorism “man-caused disaster” does not begin to deal with the real thing that is terrorism.

Napolitano, however, is to be hailed for breaking the taboo that has afflicted the word man. Political correctness, driven by the abhorrence of sexism in language, has banished such phrases as the forgotten man, man on horseback, century of the common man, even man in the arena. The adjective manly is forbidden and mankind is out, replaced by humanity. Chairman finds its substitute in chairperson or plain chair (although The Times requires a writer to choose between chairman and chairwoman). The only acceptable use of man is when it is introduced by hu.

Not anymore! Thanks to the vocabulary policy adopted at the cabinet level by the Obama administration, long-awaited change has come to lexical misanthropy. With the start of what phrasemakers could call “War on the Word ‘Terrorism,’ ” Napolitano’s coinage of the compound euphemism man-caused shows we finally have a top-level politico who can do nuance.

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2 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 11, 2009 @ 7:29 am

If I were to choose words for humans being involved in the chain of causation of the incident/event by being directly involved in the development of the technology or threat or otherwise aggravated the risk by their actions I would adopt the terminology for all of the above “Intentional or unintentional incidents or events.”

All-hazards does of course mean just that. What is interesting of course is that President George W. Bush told FEMA after 9/11 to concentrate on terrorism And President William J. Clinton told James Lee Witt to focus on natural disasters and ignore the rest of the FEMA charter, which he did to the point of totally aggravating Richard Clarke when after PD-39 (1995)was signed and issued he basically refused to fullfill FEMA’s assigned role in terrorism consequences management. Leading of course to the DOD assignment for 3 years of the training lead for STATE and LOCAL governments (not done) and the NG (not done) before reassignment to DOJ.

Personally I really don’t tort analysis to be used to help protect the lives and property of the American people. Examination of tort principles (a matter solely of STATE law in the US) should be left to post incident/event litigation.

Several articles have developed the history of the “All-hazards” controversy and if anyone is interested I have my own little backgrounder available from me at vacationlanegrp@aol.com

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 11, 2009 @ 7:32 am

Sometimes typing gets ahead of thinking. In penultimate paragraph of my comment should have the word “want” between “don’t” and “tort”!

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