I expected my rant about "patriotic" language abuse following the September 11 attacks to draw lots of mail accusing me of treason. I commented that anybody willing to undertake a complex suicide mission, for however dastardly a cause, could not be called a coward (a point made later that week by Susan Sontag in the New Yorker.)

But of the three contrary pieces that arrived, only one, by Al Pedolsky, was at all coherent, and Pedolsky merely insisted that "taking unarmed, unsuspecting, innocent people hostage and forcing them to sacrifice their lives" was "an act of the utmost extreme cowardice" by his definition.

This is a modern example of how, as Thucydides described about 2,400 years ago in his History of the Peloponnesian War, military conflict can morally debase language. As a consequence of one civil war, he wrote, "To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfit for action."

Patriots cannot be allowed to rewrite the dictionary with an Orwellian accent. As the American campaign against terrorism continues, we must choose our words--and our enemies--carefully.

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