It’s interesting how time and change play with our language. The word “Coke” might bring to mind a soft drink during the fifth inning or a weekend that almost killed you, depending on what period you’re referencing. Then there are all the digital redefinitions of things like “spam” and “firewalls.” And when we can’t retool words we already have, we just make something up. Web wags pitched that the new Apple device should be called “iFone,” but Steve Jobs prevailed and set phonetics back 10 years by insisting on spelling it “iPhone.” (Or is it fonetics?)
Back in 1929, a “gang” was something sweet. That’s evidenced in an old pop song from that year, “Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine.” Compare what you feel when you hear the word “gang” today against these lyrics: “Goodbye forever, old fellas an’ gals / Goodbye forever, old sweethearts an’ pals! / God bless them!”
Not something you’d hear crooned around an LAPD station house. There was a 14 percent increase in gang-related crime last year and the LAPD is shifting its approach to meet that reality. There will be a new emphasis on targeting the leaders and headquarters of the worst gangs, not necessarily the largest; the gangs LAPD Chief William J. Bratton calls “the most prolific.”
With events of gang violence encroaching on Santa Monica and Venice last year, it’s good to see refinement on dealing with gangs by way of their pathology and patterns. But as we sharpen our focus on gangs locally, we may be missing some larger picture globally. If you agree that, ultimately, al-Qaeda recruits are pulled in by many of the same forces that drive young people to American street gangs, and further that “cells” such as the one currently being pursued in Somalia can both swear allegiance to larger ideals and retain autonomy in their area of operation… then maybe you can accept that the long-standing definitions of words such as “war” and certainly “strategy” have changed.
Go with me for one more step: If now after the elections the Bush administration is more formally abandoned by the Republican party… if they are in fact a struggling “gang” more than even a Republican faction… then we’re even less obligated to supply them with guns and American lives for a fight they instigated on deception and false premises against another gang. Add to that a feeling that I believe is shared by others: That it was Hussein’s oil gang they were after, not “terrorists.”
In a stated pursuit of Osama bin Laden, we’ve executed Saddam Hussein. There will be no comfort realized by what happens in Iraq after we withdraw troops. But is there a rationale at work if we withdraw for reasons of preventing more killing of American young people by gang violence on Iraqi streets the same as we pursue that goal on our own streets? At home, we take the guns away and work to lessen the use of violence to resolve conflict. Far from any conception of defeat or failure, isn’t that what we want to do by getting our treasured and courageous fighters back from Iraq?
One can never make light of great sacrifice, and I speak as someone with family members who fought in World War II and Korea. But even Clint Eastwood has gone to considerable length to communicate that it’s time for the United States to let go of the notion that there is ever absolute “greatness” in the death and injury and psychological damage of war.
Both American political parties have entered a period of redefinition. As they begin their relentless efforts to win us over to their new view of themselves, we should listen carefully when they deploy words that we believe have the same meaning they did years ago. I, for one, would be delighted if America would try harder to discern between acts of terror, terrorism and terrorists. At a time when so much is terrible, these differences matter greatly. On the street, it’s like knowing exactly which gang you’re with.