(NOTE: This piece is ancient history, as I wrote it almost 15 years ago for Adoi, a Malaysian marketing-communications magazine I was working for at the time. But I post it here as background to the updated report on my subsequent battles in the word wars that I’m writing – or at least intending to write – for my Malaysiakini column this week)
It wasn’t until my Adoi deadline came up that I realised it’s been weeks since I gave advertising a thought, so busy as I’ve been fighting in a war of words. In two wars actually, one still being waged in the Australian media over our government’s decision to deny landfall to would-be illegal immigrants rescued from an Indonesian vessel by the Norwegian freighter Tampa, and the other of course the global “war on terrorism”.
And no, there’s no sign I’m winning in either conflict. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but I’m finding it’s no match for gunboats and the forces of xenophobia on the Australian scene, or suicidal hatred, cruise missiles, stealth bombers and blitzkriegs of propaganda in the global sphere. But as impotent as my words have proven so far, and as defeated as I’ve felt at times, somehow I can’t call it quits.
It’s been said ad nauseam that the first victim of war is truth. But in these current wars in which I’ve been fighting my losing battles, the conflicting truths lie in the terminology. Australians supporting the exclusion from our shores of what our Immigration Department calls “unauthorised arrivals” choose to demonise them with epithets like “illegals”, “queue-jumpers” and “criminals”. Those of us of a more merciful frame of mind, and more mindful of our own or our ancestors’ relatively recent arrival in Australia from elsewhere, use the terms “asylum-seekers” or “refugees”.
Similar terminological errorism surrounds the question of terrorism. The mass-murderers who committed the atrocities in New York and Washington on September 11 were called “cowards” by President Bush and “heroes” or “glorious martyrs” by their supporters and sympathisers. Osama Bin Laden referred to the U.S. as “terrorists”, while to the U.S. government the word “terrorist” seems to apply primarily if not exclusively to foreign killers of American citizens. While it seems to me and perhaps many of my fellows that a “terrorist” is a person of any race, creed or colour who anytime, anywhere uses killing or the threat of it for his or her own ends. A definition that embraces not just a host of organisations devoted to political murder and mayhem in dozens of countries around the world, but also ruling regimes, some U.S.-supported or tolerated, that terrorise their own citizens, and also criminal terror organisations like the Triads, the Yakkuza and the Mafia.
The last of which, incidentally, is suspected of as ghoulish a crime as could be imagined under the current circumstances in New York. While firemen and other rescue workers have been removing the rubble and human remains from the World Trade Centre, trucks owned by Mafia-controlled companies are alleged to have hauled debris not to Staten Island for forensic investigation as they were supposed to, but elsewhere for sale as scrap for their own grubby profit. When it comes to making a killing, it seems some people are just too terrifyingly efficient for words.