As the government’s resident philosopher-prince, Attorney-General George Brandis is fond of words, particularly words from outside the English language. Being a lawyer, he likes to draw upon one of the techniques the legal profession uses to pretend it isn’t just another self-interested industry, by quoting Latinisms and terms usually only heard in the rarefied confines of the courtroom, like “gravamen”. And if words can be pronounced a la francaise, so much the better, even if the words have long since passed into English usage.
It was to France that Brandis turned again yesterday, though not in his usual way of adding a decidedly Gallic inflection to words like “tranche”. Rather, in discussing Islamic State on ABC Radio, Brandis slipped on some horn-rimmed glasses, took a drag on a Gauloise and wandered along the Left Bank in search of Jean-Paul Sartre. IS “represents or seeks to be an existential threat to us,” he opined.
Brandis of course isn’t the first official to use “existential”* about terrorism. It was something of a staple of US discourse in the wake of 9/11, when dark rumours of al-Qaeda having weapons of mass destruction swirled. Dick Cheney, Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice all used the word — in fact, it got used so much that conservative columnist William Safire wrote about its overuse. Naturally, the usage in the hands of warmongers meant not that a terrorist attack would make people question the meaning of their lives and succumb to the despair of knowing they are alone in a cold, indifferent universe — George W. Bush was able to accomplish that merely by opening his mouth — but that terrorism posed a threat to the very existence of countries. The word continues to be abused to this very day: a US general recently called border security with Mexico an “existential threat” to the United States.
But terrorism can’t be existential, by definition. Terrorism is localised and confined, aimed at specific goals, in contrast to war. Even the biggest terrorist attacks are minor threats compared to ordinary causes of death, natural or human-made. Even a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon would not be “existential”. Wars, however, may indeed be existential — in fact anyone over the age of 25 grew up living with the dread that civilisation could be wiped out within hours courtesy of a US-Soviet nuclear exchange. What Cheney and Blair and Rice, and now Brandis, are seeking to do is to ludicrously conflate the threat posed by a bunch of savage thugs whose primary weapons are stolen Humvees, rifles and knives with the threat posed by the Soviet Union’s nuclear forces.
Maybe what politicians who use “existential” are also referring to when they use it is that they see terrorism as an existential threat to their own careers. They’re convinced that voters will hold them responsible for even a small terrorist attack, and accordingly they make wildly distorted decisions in response. Either way, it’s one of the most absurd pieces of War on Terror rhetoric, and that’s saying something, even without the French accent.
*I’ll skip the jokes about Camus, L‘Etranger and killing an Arab.