This might not be the best time to mention it, but America's got a few other security problems to worry about right now beyond those posed by potential future acts of terrorism. No, I'm not talking about the all-important stock market which Alan Greenspan confuses with a real economy or the condition of Social Security, now that its ironclad "lock box" has been officially looted. Rather, I'm referring to the insecurity of our everyday vocabulary.
Take, for instance, the newly created Cabinet-level position entitled Director of Homeland Security. Okay, to some degree, the name makes perfect sense. "Homeland" is our native land, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge will be in charge of a department that will keep that land safe. Fair enough. Except that nobody talks this way. ("Where you from, fella? The homeland?" "No, I come from the 'other land,' the one beyond the Great Waters.") We refer to our country as America or the United States or the US or USA. Even when we're overseas we talk about "getting back to America," not "returning to the homeland." In fact, until our president coined this new word for our home shores, I can't say that I'd ever heard anybody describe America as the "homeland."
If you're wondering where these expressions come from, so was I. Turns out that the phrase "homeland security" was apparently christened by a blue ribbon panel of current and former members of Congress who recommended the creation of a National Homeland Security Agency when they released their report this past January. Which points to a bigger problem: the inability of our government officials to talk like real human beings. As a result, the names of our organizations and governmental units don't really mean anything. Take the National Security Agency, for example. One would assume that an agency with such a name would already be doing the kind of work that the Director of Homeland Security is now being asked to undertake. Except that the NSA doesn't really do security work; instead, it "coordinates, directs, and performs highly specialized activities to protect US information systems and produce foreign intelligence information." Which might make one wonder the purpose of the multi-billion dollar a year Central Intelligence Agency, the government organization charged with (according to its Web site) "[p]roviding accurate, comprehensive, and timely foreign intelligence on national security topics."
Given the oxymoronic state of the above agencies, one can understand how President Bush might have been in a quandary over what to call yet another governmental unit dealing with security issues. I suppose "Internal Security Agency" could have worked, except that "internal security" suggests covert activities and "black" operations -- things in which our existing police agencies would never engage. "National Protection Agency" has kind of a nice ring to it, yet lacks that broad patriotic appeal the national security crowd is always after during a time of crisis. But make no mistake about it: phraseology is definitely key when the world is in conflict. That's why even when we go to war these days, we don't really have wars. We have "operations." Like Desert Shield. And Desert Storm. And, of course, the now-rejected Infinite Justice. (Who thinks these names up, anyway? The Office of Catchy War Slogans?)
Before we get too involved in Operation Restore Freedom, however, it would be nice if President Bush created another government agency that the country really needs. Call it the Department of Lexicon Security. A federal agency that oversees all government organization names and acronyms. Staffed by people who understand the meaning of words, not those who simply like to parrot tired patriotic rhetoric. Maybe then our leaders would begin to talk like intelligent diplomats instead of sounding like John Wayne movie characters. Snappy phrases may work on the silver screen, but as we're beginning to find out, they don't bring us peace in the real world. That requires a level of thoughtfulness that only comes from respecting the complexities that already exist within our language. After all, if we can't communicate intelligently amongst ourselves, how can we expect the rest of the world to understand us?
Tom Goldstein, a graduate of the William Mitchell College of Law, is publisher of the baseball journal Elysian Fields Quarterly (www.efqreview.com). He lives in Saint Paul, Minn.