In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in Paris earlier this week, and amidst all of the horror and the inevitable soul-searching that follows any such tragic event, an old and unwelcome misuse of terminology has reared its ugly head again and – in its own subtle and insidious way – could be set to play its part in undermining the fight against terrorism and mass murder. The word being misused is “execution”. It’s being wheeled out all over the media to refer to the acts of the cowards guilty of these foul crimes – and the danger is that, to some, it might just lend a false air of dignity and gravitas to what is more accurately just another disgusting act of terrorism. cowardice and callous rejection of all that is civilised.
The Charlie Hebdo story is everywhere at the moment, and rightly so. It’s a high-profile atrocity, the terrorists’ answer to the maxim of peaceful people everywhere that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. It is because of this context that it’s so important we get our terminology right, and don’t risk succouring the enemy by portraying its actions in an unrealistic, even flattering, light. If we are to match the pen against the sword with any hope of ultimately winning, then we have to give an appropriate name to the criminal acts we are opposing. This is not merely a matter of semantics, it’s far, far more important. As a first principle, let’s call murder precisely that. Let’s speak of cowardly attacks, let’s talk of helpless and innocent victims. Let’s not use a legal term whose meaning has been perverted far beyond its original application.
The word “execution” in a capital punishment context, refers to application of a death warrant consequent upon judicial proceedings. It is the warrant, properly speaking, that is executed – not the miscreant at the end of the rope. Whether you’re pro or anti the death penalty wherever it might still apply, you are surely aware that it is a culmination of this lengthy legal process. It is not a random killing perpetrated by a random individual or group who have accorded themselves the right to make their own rules and enforce their own penalties, without regard for law, justice or the sanctity of life, and devil take the hindmost. When we use the word “execution” in connection with events like the chilling murders in Paris, we run the very real risk of planting incorrect impressions in uncritical minds. We are in danger of depicting the thugs and terrorists as having some kind of moral or even legal force behind their heinous actions. We must not do this. Murder is murder, and should be scorned and met with horror and outrage. Any language which seems even slightly to suggest that such an action can be mentioned in the same breath as the outcome of due process must be suppressed in the interests of preserving the truth of the matter. Murderers don’t execute people. Murderers murder people.
I was listening to the radio only a little while after the attack, and a BBC Five Live reporter was talking about some video pictures from the scene in Paris, deemed too graphic to broadcast, of “a terrorist executing a policeman.” Wrong! That policeman was not executed. He was murdered, the victim of a cowardly and tawdry act that has nothing to do with civilisation, nothing to do with the judiciary or the forces of law and justice. His family have been deprived of this man, not by a legal warrant, but by a hooded coward, a murderous thug wielding an illegal weapon. That is the fact of the matter. Use of the word “execution” can only give a false, misleading and utterly unhelpful impression.
The pen is mightier than the sword – and words (even cartoons) properly used and artfully aimed, can strike home where an arsenal of missiles might fail to reach. What more graphic proof of that than the Charlie Hebdo massacre, a visceral reaction to the wounding power of high-class satire? Given that, let us not play into the enemy’s hands by dignifying their actions with the wrong words. Let their cowardly attacks be described with scorn, derision and condemnation. Let’s not succour the thugs by appearing to admit some moral compass in their grisly world of terror and intimidation.
May the victims of this cowardly and barbaric attack rest in peace. Aujourd’hui, je suis Charlie. Demain, et dans l’avenir, nous sommes tous Charlie.