Under the Sun
Words can hurt more than sticks and stones
Away from defined context, writers hardly get attention or thought.
Sure, novelists win prizes, Pulitzers, National Book Awards and the like, and right now, a strike by the Writers Guild of America is laying hurt on talk show junkies, denying them a dose of "The Daily Show" or Letterman, TV programs dependent on current events that amply supply material from which creative minds form mocking humor.
But regular folks who make a living from stringing together adjective, noun, verb and the odd adverb don't often rise to high-profile status. A few journalists gain public recognition, but apart from those who write tomes about failed presidents, Wall Street bad boys or whatever war is in vogue, their reputations are mainly among peer groups and "serious" readers.
The rest labor in relative obscurity. They write ad copy, captions on pictorial calendars, instructions for a cell phone, prefaces for environmental impact statements, annual reports, descriptions of clothing in catalogues and ingredient labels on soup cans. Whenever an idea, message or scheme needs to be communicated, the go-to person is a writer or someone who equally understands how words can persuade, clarify, shroud, manipulate, suggest and argue.
A scan of news articles on a single day saw the word "torture" come up several times. One involved a teenager sentenced for torturing a younger boy's pet tortoise, another described an incident in which university students placed cookies hot from the oven on the skin of a man to torture him in a drug deal gone bad.
In both, the actions of tormentors clearly constituted the definition of torture; that is, to inflict severe physical or mental pain to force information or confession or to get revenge.
As bizarre as these stories are, they don't eclipse the fantastic twists in the debate over the nomination of Michael Mukasey as President Bush's third attorney general. Torture, or more precisely, the practice of waterboarding, has once again become the firing line of disagreement.
Mukasey's refusal to say waterboarding amounts to illegal torture -- which the Bush administration slyly chooses to refer to as "enhanced interrogation" techniques and which it denies using -- has roughed his path to confirmation. But he'll get the job because senators have found the words to provide a veneer of toughness while yielding yet again to the fear of appearing soft on terrorists. They say they will clear Mukasey because he promises to enforce laws Congress passes to ban the torture, knowing full well that the president's veto power would neutralize that promise.
In much the same, members of the Legislature used words to give the Hawaii Superferry their blessing to navigate interisland, counter to court rulings. They cast votes of approval "with reservations," an enhanced evasion technique devised to give an appearance of standing up for environmental protection while their actions result in the reverse.
Gov. Linda Lingle, too, exploits expression. The condition she has set for avoidance of ferry runs through a whale sanctuary gives exceptions to "the interest of safety and comfort of passengers," leaving discretion completely to the ferry company. She also asks the company to "consider establishing a special transport rate" for farmers who might want to ship their goods, but "consider" doesn't mean the company has to comply.
Contrary to the bromide, words that hide, that obscure, that speak louder than action, do hurt. Even an ordinary writer knows that.
has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org