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Why We Shouldn't Want "More" from Government

"Extra" can be a nasty prefix...

BEWARE the government that provides "more", writes Eric Fry for the Daily Reckoning.

Fear the government that provides "extra."

"More government" always means more of something, but not always more of something a productive individual desires. More government means more rules and regulations, more agencies to enforce the proliferating rules and regulations, more taxes to pay for the proliferating agencies that enforce the proliferating rules and regulations. Before long, "more government" begins to feel a lot like "less" — less opportunity, less liberty, and certainly less after-tax income.

But that's an old story. The newest twist on that old story is that "more government" sometimes means "extra"... and that's just about the last thing any liberty-loving American should desire, especially when "extra" pops up in a government-endorsed euphemism.

Look what happens to simple, inert terms when you add "extra" to them:

"Marital passion."

"Terrestrial encounter."

"Judicial verdict."

Marital passion might be just the thing to keep the nuptial embers glowing. But extramarital passion, not so much. That's why most of us are content to do without "extra." But from time to time, there's someone around who's eager to force "extra" upon us, whether that someone is a cheating spouse, a wayfaring alien or an "extra-constitutional" government agency... which brings us to the first half of the US government's catchy new euphemism: "extrajudicial."

The word does not mean "extraordinarily judicial" or "even more judicial than usual." It means the opposite. It means "outside the judicial process" or, literally, "outside the law."

Now let's add the word "killing" and, voila, we get, "extrajudicial killing."

This euphemism has recently popped up in the American lexicon to describe the conduct of US drone strikes in countries that end in "-stan" or "-en"... or sometimes "-ia." And you usually find this term very close to its companion euphemism, "collateral damage."

"Extrajudicial killing" does not mean a killing that is "extraordinarily judicial" or "even more judicial than usual." It means the exact opposite. The term refers to a premeditated killing that occurs outside of any judicial process – i.e., "outside the law." It refers to a killing, in other words, that most folks would recognize as simply "murder." But there's a twist. As Wikipedia helpfully explains, "An extrajudicial killing is the killing of a person by governmental authorities without the sanction of any judicial proceeding or legal process."

In other words, a government never murders anyone; it extrajudicially kills them.

Eye-glazing terms like "extrajudicial killing" are ideal for obscuring ugly or inconvenient truths. In this case, the inconvenient truth is that the US government is killing suspected terrorists, rather than convicted ones.

There is a difference, of course, which is why the US Supreme Court reserves the death penalty for convicted murderers, rather than suspected ones. Even then, mistakes happen. Juries get it wrong sometimes.

Here in the States, about one in 20 death row inmates is later found not guilty. In some cases, the truth does not surface until after the innocents have suffered the ultimate penalty. And posthumous exonerations cannot raise the dead. Even after all the testimonies, cross-examinations, objections, and appeals, innocent folk sometimes die for crimes they did not commit. Knowing this, it would be easy to imagine that the percentage of folks wrongfully condemned to "die by drone" is not zero.

But there is also another inconvenient and ugly truth about drone strikes. They sometimes miss their targets. Not only are they extrajudicial, but they are also extra good at killing innocent bystanders.

The Guardian observes: "A report by the law schools at Stanford and New York universities suggests that during the first three years of [Obama's] time in office, the 259 strikes for which he is ultimately responsible killed between 297-569 civilians, of whom at least 64 were children."

Even as mere numbers, this story is horrific. But the numbers have names, which is utterly chilling. And each of the names had hopes and dreams — hopes and dreams that did not deserve to vanish in a burst of shrapnel and flames.

Last week in Boston, three innocent people lost their lives to a heinous act of terrorism. One of the victims was an 8-year-old boy — a boy with hopes and dreams that did not deserve to end.

There is no such thing as collateral damage. The term is an insult to human dignity. There is only tragedy. Horrific tragedy. But euphemisms like "collateral damage" and "extrajudicial killing" attempt to sanitize and conceal the horror of tragedy.

Not all euphemisms are bad, of course. But moral ambiguity and euphemisms tend to go together like hunters and camouflage, or perhaps more like warfare and national anthems. The greater the "ambiguity," the more creative the euphemism tends to be, especially when the euphemism issues from a government agency to describe a government activity.

Good policies require no cosmetic surgery, no euphemistic photoshopping — no spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down. If the policy of conducting drone strikes is a good one, let the government call them what they are. Let the government call them "serial exterminations of folks who probably do not like us and might intend to harm us one day" — a term that would lend itself to the handy acronym, "SEOFWPDNLUAMITHUODs."

Or maybe the government could simply replace its public euphemism with its private one: "bug splats."

Eric J.Fry has been a specialist in international equities since the early 1980s. A professional portfolio manager for more than 10 years, he wrote the first comprehensive guide to American Depositary Receipts, International Investing with ADRs. Today he reports on Wall Street from California for the renowned Daily Reckoning email service.

See full archive of Eric Fry articles

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