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Quite a few constitutional questions hinge on the meaning of Public Law 107-40 [S. J. RES. 23], the congressional resolution passed on September 18, 2001, just days after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center. It has been used to justify wiretaps on a massive scale, and other substantial expansions of presidential power. (To give a point of comparison, in 1965, the FBI maintained just 75 wiretaps [page 100, "A G-Man's Life", by Mark Felt and John O'Connor].)

So, it may pay to look at the text of the resolution. The relevant part states: That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

To step back from politics and look at this in a rational manner, let's translate the words with heavy emotional content into equivalent words that we can deal with more calmly. (I do this to come up with the best possible reading; we'll put the original words back in at the end.)

So, what does it say now?

That the Librarian is authorized to levy fines against those persons he determines committed the damage to books last week, or harbored such persons, in order to prevent any future damage to Library property by such persons.

Now, how would one interpret that?

But, now let's put the original words back into our conclusions and see what we get.

Lawyers might disagree, with this analysis, of course. They might claim that this is special legal language that cannot be interpreted as plain English. However, Jargon and special languages have a specific and limited role in the world. They are useful and acceptable when precision needs to be combined with compact language. For instance, a physicist writes "quark" to avoid the necessity of adding a long and complex description several times in each paragraph. A linguist writes "fricative" to refer to a particular type of speech sound that everyone in the field understands, and that it would be impractically messy to describe over and over again. A lawyer writes "contract" to mean a particular kind of exchange of valuables, governed by a particular set of laws. Millions of contracts are executed every day; were we to write out all the details on each one, the sheer waste of paper would be unimaginable. Moreover, the effort involved in reading and understanding all those contracts, written out with fully detailed explanations, would require us all to be lawyers.

However, this justification for jargon does not apply for resolutions like Public Law 107-40 [S. J. RES. 23]. Precision may be necessary, but we don't go to war very often. Certainly not so often that we need to write it out in short-hand. So, there is little or no honest justification for jargon here because there is no need to write compactly.

In fact, it may also fail the other test for useful jargon: precision. Honest jargon encapsulates a precise idea that is defined somewhere; everyone knows what it means. To the extent there is disagreement about the meaning of jargon, it has failed its purpose.

[ Papers | | Phonetics Lab | Oxford ] Last Modified Mon Jun 4 18:59:48 2007 Greg Kochanski: [ ]