Politics & Media
Jan 15, 2024, 06:27AM

Warning! You’re Too Easily Triggered

According to everyone from Stefanik to Biden, the meaning of “hostage” is a key question.

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Recently the right has come to agree with the left about its most fundamental insight: that only words matter. Or, if things other than words matter, we can’t talk about them. I wouldn't have thought that such a doctrine could originate on a planet such as this one, which is more like a rock than a paragraph. But perhaps the right's conversion to "words are the only real things" has been in process for a long time. I do remember the 20 years when no immigration legislation could emerge from Congress because people were too busy arguing about what was and wasn’t "amnesty" for "illegal aliens." As they did nothing, the urgency of “amnesty” faded; the only practical upshot to arise from all the herculean efforts pursued between the years 1990 to 2010. I figure that spending decades on the question of the definition of “amnesty” was an intentional cooperative strategy of both sides to avoid doing anything.

Why do they want to avoid doing anything? Because nothing is what groomers and deniers do.

It's not surprising that American politics and policy, foreign and domestic, turns now on the meaning of the word “hostage.” What’s good about this is that lexicography, now recognized as the only possible political and economic science, is easier than legislation. There’s no policy question so profound that it can't be solved by consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, and there’s no expertise but "merely verbal" expertise. This will be good news for hostages everywhere, who may take themselves to be physical bodies held captive in physical situations. But, purported hostages, you'll feel better when we figure out what “hostage” really means, won't you?

“Hostage," the word, got new ferocious power from Hamas' capture of 250-or-so Israelis on October 7. Pro-Palestinian protesters here and there ripped down "hostage posters," and suddenly “hostage” was everywhere. What a certain sort of person (call her “Elise Stefanik”) noticed immediately is that “hostage” is a strong word. Strong like bull. (But which is stronger? To find out, we'd have to take a 2000 lb. Brahma and pit it against the word “hostage” in a fight to the death.) The fact that this isn’t possible in this particular universe might make one wonder what it means to think of words as “strong.”

In the belief system of today's rightists and leftists, “hostage”—like “amnesty” in 2006—is a magical artifact like a ring of power or a rabbit-producing top hat. The more you use it, though, the more it wears down—the harder it becomes to hide the rabbit. Prediction: we'll fight over the real meaning of “hostage” through 2034, then the debate will all disintegrate into a vague and useless memory. Everyone's goal appears not to do anything all the way to retirement, and in this their exclusive devotion to words—despite their skull-crushing verbal incompetence—will have gotten them through their whole careers without accomplishing anything beyond contributing marginally to debasing the verbal currency.

At any rate, Trump and Stefanik, among others, have taken to calling people convicted of crimes with regard to the January 6 Capitol riot “hostages” Their purpose was to “trigger” the anti-Trump mainstream, and this purpose has been realized bountifully. Biden himself called the notion "grotesque" and "offensive." He could barely contain his outrage. Dozens of articles immediately appeared, allegedly clarifying the meaning of “hostage.” The main, or only, point of these was to show that the rioters have been legally convicted. By definition, they indicated—they fumed, they insisted, they prevaricated—a government can’t hold hostages after a legal process.

A typical treatment in Yahoo! News (there's still a Yahoo! News?) went like this: "In contrast to the civilians abducted by terrorists overseas, every single Jan. 6 rioter currently being held behind bars is there either because they were found or pleaded guilty, or because a federal judge—after hearing evidence from both prosecutors and the defendants—ordered them held pretrial due to the specific circumstances of their case. Even then, pretrial detainees have the opportunity to have their cases examined by a panel of federal appeals court judges, which several Jan. 6 defendants have done. Federal judges who have held Capitol riot defendants in custody pending trial or have sentenced convicted defendants to prison were appointed by presidents of both parties and confirmed by the Senate."

Well, I see that you have great respect for the legal system, but you haven’t raised a relevant objection. Relevant to the lexicography of “hostage,” which is what we're arguing about, and which is the great or only issue of our time. Almost every commentator went with: it's impossible for a government to kidnap people and hold them hostage after a legal procedure. That’s a ridiculous argument, and they’d have done a lot better to keep it all in the dictionary, where it belongs, and focus on the meaning of “ransom,” for example. Are January 6 prisoners being ransomed? It's a hard question. But if they aren’t, then maybe they aren’t hostages.

Because a government can take hostages in a way that’s perfectly legal, according to themselves. It happens all the time. Plausibly, the government of Israel stepped up arrests of West Bank Palestinians, particularly women and children, in order to exchange them for hostages in Gaza (and often quickly re-arrested them). That’s hostage-taking. Hostage-taking may even be defensible in response to hostage-taking, but there’s no doubt that those people are hostages, held by a government under quasi-legal procedures. The most famous American hostages in history, held in Iran 1979-81, were held by a government, which lent the vague appearance of a legal criminal prosecution. They charged the American diplomats with "endangering national security."

Or here's a plausible case of government hostage-taking: the astounding UK scandal about postmasters. Between 2000 and 2014, the government insisted that all sub-postmasters (very central and beloved figures all over the country) use a software product called Horizon to tally daily receipts, rather than the traditional ledgers that had worked for centuries. The software mis-added receipts every day, everywhere. "For some, this meant heavy personal losses and bankruptcy; for others it also meant criminal convictions; some of those caught up in the scandal have since committed suicide. There seem to have been around 900 convictions that relied on the now-notorious Horizon system, though nobody knows for certain."

As David Allen Green argues, this hostage-taking was achieved by direct application of agreed-upon legal standards and procedures. "If it were not those particular identifiable individuals who were culpable," he writes, "then it would have been other individuals doing the same things. And this is because of legal and corporate contexts that facilitated this wrongdoing. This is not to say that the guilty people can themselves blame the system—the culpable individuals could and should have done different things, at each and every step. Indeed, exceptional individuals could have stopped the nonsense and the cruelty. But these were not exceptional individuals—they were individuals doing what they (wrongly) believed to be their job or performing what they (wrongly) believed to be their function or protecting what they (wrongly) saw to be legitimate interests."

Oy, the banality of evil. In this case, the banality of hostage-taking.

I’ll make the obvious point that governments can take hostages and justify doing so by manufacturing legal pretexts. But on the other hand, I don't think “hostage” is the right term for people convicted of crimes for January 6: mostly, as I say, because they haven’t been directly held to ransom. However, this debate exclusively concerns proposed adjustments to the dictionary, and doesn’t amount to any substantive disagreement about anything at all.

I see what you're trying to accomplish on both sides: as much nothing as possible. The idea is to maunder on about words until you reach retirement, without having to run the risk involved in concrete action.

Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell


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