I think it’s finally happened. We may have finally chased the White Rabbit of Ridiculous down the dark hole and are about to end up a shell-shocked Alice in some Bizarro-Wonderland. I expect to see the Cheshire Cat any day now, and once he shows up, the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen won’t be far behind. My infernal optimism for the future of our society has been shaken to the core. Recent events are turning my girlish laughter into tears.
As everybody from Biloxi to Bangkok knows, Barack Obama turned loose his weapons of mild destruction the other day, and the result was a double-tap to the head of the President of the Evil Club — Osama Bin Laden. I, for one, broke out the champagne and watched the cheering in the streets on TV. However, it appears our celebrations were premature. Nobody in the US military ran the operation, codename Geronimo, past the all-powerful Politically Correct police. Apparently, using “Geronimo” as the codename for the operation is a direct insult to all Native Americans. (I’m not making this up!) Apache Tribal Chairperson Jeff Houser, of Fort Sill, Oklahoma, has sent a letter to the White House (displayed on their Tribal Website) to ask the President to apologize for juxtaposing Geronimo’s name with Osama Bin Laden’s. According to the letter, Native American children “are facing the reality of having one of their most revered figures being connected to a terrorist and murderer…” Houser continues: “Think about how they feel at this point.” This is an interesting rhetorical question to a black president who grew up around a few stereotypes, himself. The letter goes on to say that Native Americans in general — and Apaches in particular — find the codename “painful and offensive.” Regardless of intent, the military use of Geronimo is yet another manifestation of the history of oppression Native Americans have suffered ever since Chris Columbus brought his tour group to the Americas, over 500 years ago.
I’m not one to downplay the raw deal Native Americans got during the great European migrations of the 18th and 19th centuries. Nor am I one to try and talk history in an age as repressive as our own. However, stretching the umbilical cord of injustice from the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona to a mansion in the suburbs of Islamabad, Pakistan is beyond reasonable. We are about to go through the looking glass at warpspeed, so I think we should pause briefly and examine our trajectory.
At the risk of splitting hairs, it might be useful to note that Geronimo’s name wasn’t even Geronimo; it was Goyathlay or Goyahkla. (It’s impossible to render spoken Apache* into written English) According to the story I was told many times, and partially confirmed historically, the name Geronimo was an Apache joke nickname given to Goyathlay after a Mexican he was busy killing, repeatedly invoked the name of Saint Jerome (in Spanish Jeronimo.) Apache warriors thought it was hilarious that, in the middle of a life-and-death situation, someone would call on an imaginary spirit for mercy. Later, Americans heard Goyathlay called this, didn’t know any better and figured that was the guy’s name. It stuck — on both sides of the cultural divide.
Secondly, Geronimo himself was probably the greatest hit-and-run military tactician North America has ever produced (along with Cochise and Jeb Stuart.) For thirty years, off and on, he challenged the might of both the United States and Mexico, simultaneously. Although always vastly outnumbered, he outmanoeuvred and outfought every military force sent against him, and he was never actually beaten in battle. His daring raids tied up entire armies in fruitless chases that covered the entire southwest, from Texas to Arizona and the northern Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua, as well. While I can’t speak for the guy personally I think Navy Seals dropping out of the sky in the middle of Pakistan, tapping the hammer on the Archduke of Evil, grabbing the body and getting out of there without a scratch, is just the kind of operation he would have loved. By all reports, he was a feisty old fella up until the day he died and probably would have gone in with the Navy Seals, given half a chance.
Lastly, I don’t know anything about covert military operations, but I do read a lot. Codenames are not chosen because they bear any relation to the objective — nor, by the way, are they chosen at random. They are chosen because they are particularly distinct, usually have more than one syllable and avoid too many p’s, b’s and v’s. All this is so they can’t be screwed up by excited young people in the heat of the moment. “Geronimo” fulfills these criteria, and that’s it. A few of the Navy boys may have made the big fist and yelled, “Hell, yeah! Geronimo!” but considering they were about to be shot at I don’t think anybody should be too offended by that. Frankly, I don’t think anybody should be offended, at all.
I’ve said all this to say we need to step back from the linguistic House of Horrors we are creating for ourselves. The time and energy we spend being outraged verges on the ridiculous. Any number of groups have gotten the shaft over the years, but witch hunting our language is not going to change that. Certain words are always going to be offensive, I agree — especially when spoken in anger or hate. But not all words carry that connotation in every circumstance. We need to quit chasing hurt feelings and use that same energy to deal with real bigotry in our society.
Oops! Forget it! I just heard the military has changed the name to Operation Neptune Spear. I’m off to find Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
*I’ve used “Apache” instead of “Chiricahua” because it is more familiar to everyone.