Words Matter

Whichever side you take on this hot topic of President Trump, Ukraine and impeachment, I have a modest proposal that maybe we can all agree on.

As fellow Americans in a stressful time, the least we can do for each other is agree on some essential vocabulary. By this I mean some of the key words being tossed around publicly now, and what they factually mean.

Over the past week, Mr. Trump has used language that most of us would have deemed incendiary at an earlier time. I read them as incendiary now. So I think it’s worth clarifying the meaning of these five words as the whole national discussion moves forward:

Treason: The US Constitution (see Article III, Section 3) defines treason as waging war against one’s country, adhering to the nation’s enemies, or giving them aid and comfort. Wherever this might have happened, we deserve to know the facts.

Traitor: One who commits treason. Nothing less.

Whistle-blower: A whistle-blower is one who has information of wrongdoing within an organization. Such a person may fear reprisal from a superior by sharing anything outside normal channels, so federal law gives whistle-blowers protection against such reprisals. Congressional intent was to make them part of law enforcement, to ferret out wrongdoing from the inside, not put them in physical danger. A whistle-blower is not a traitor.

Impeachment: This word does not mean removal of an official from his elected office. It means a finding of misconduct via an inquiry into what exactly has happened. When the focus is on the President, the inquiry itself will be a divisive process. It’s also regrettable that the country has to be put through this now, but voters deserve the truth.

Coup: Let’s be careful here. The word means the sudden overthrow of a government. This obviously hasn’t happened, yet Mr. Trump this week used this term in a reckless way. In America’s current heated environment, it sounds like a dangerous incitement.

This week there have been other inflammatory words (beware the references to “spies” and “civil war” by a defensive White House and its partisan defenders) but these five will do for now.

Words matter. Words can be weaponized. Certain words, wrongly applied, can incite weaker minds to disastrous action. Much of this behavior also looks consistent with Mr. Trump’s pattern (learned from his mentor, the late Roy Cohn) of deny/dodge/distract to get yourself out of real trouble when the facts close in.

For now, we all just need to be careful out there.