"Homeland" is a creepy, morale-sapping word. Let's drop it.

Political commentary and more.
June 14 2002 4:38 AM

The Trouble With "Homeland"

It's a creepy, morale-sapping word. Let's drop it.

This morning, Peggy Noonan delivers an excellent, subtle OpinionJournal column  on why Rudolph Giuliani should head the new "Department of Homeland Security." She notes, for example, that journalists by now have a vested interest making the heroic Giuliani a success, which would help him succeed. Of course, they'll never get the chance, because Bush isn't going to appoint Giuliani. (Even so, Noonan argues, pushing him for the job is a win-win-win-win position for Democrats). But the main public service Noonan performs is to put on the table the issue of the word "homeland." She thinks it doesn't work. She's right. "Homeland" is a terrible word! Let's say it now before it's too late.

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I know I'm not alone in this -- I've heard enough grumbling from friends who don't want to be unpatriotic but can't help cringing and wondering out loud why this suddenly became a word we all had to use. Noonan touches on the main problems, but it's worth reviewing them in detail.

1) It's Un-American: "Homeland," as Noonan notes, isn't a word Americans have been used to using. It's word Germans have been used to using. "Heimat," a common German word, means home -- and not home as in "home and hearth" either (that's "heim"). "Heimat" means "home" as in a place or nation that's home. "Heimatland" is the literal analog of "homeland," as I understand it. It's not specifically a Nazi word -- it's a general patriotic and sentimental word. It was used during World War I, for example. My mother, who was born in Germany but fled at age 10, can sing from memory a pre-Hitler song with "Heimatland" in it. Still, Nazi or not, the word is uncomfortably Teutonic-sounding. (And you don't think the Nazis appropriated it?) My raw sentiments are these: I'm an American, not a German. My father fought in a bloody war so I wouldn't have to be a German. Why is the Bush administration telling me I need to be German now?

"Homeland" is un-American in another way: it explicitly ties our sentiments to the land, not to our ideas. Logically, this step makes no sense (presumably we want to stop terrorism even if it targets Americans and American institutions abroad). It also misses the exceptional American contribution that's worth defending. People throughout history have felt sentimental attachment to their land. We're sentimentally attached to something less geographic: i.e., freedom. Didn't Ronald Reagan make this point with some regularity?

2) It's too new: Why ask us to suddenly start spouting an unfamiliar phrase in the name of patriotism? That in itself has a Big Brotherish aspect, or at least a disturbingly phony PR aspect. We know 9/11 was a big change. And maybe there's an advantage to giving people a constant linguistic reminder that something big has changed. But I'd argue we need more to be reminded of the familiar, old virtues we're defending (admittedly on a new, more horrifying planet). We're disoriented enough already. President Bush won me over, in the days after 9/11, precisely because he wasn't so disoriented that he lost sight of the old American (and human, and masculine) virtues. We need a word that conveys and embodies those trusty things, not one that sounds like we've bought into some fancy new security-consultant's lingo.

3) It's creepy: Police and intelligence agents are partly, inherently, scary. When they honestly and openly call themselves "police' and "intelligence agents," they build trust and remind you why they're there and (more important) why you should cooperate with them. When the police start talking about kirche and kinder and get all mushy and sentimental, they get truly frightening, and start to remind you of Robert Duvall's character, the fascistic commander, in that awful movieThe Handmaid's Tale.

This isn't just an aesthetic issue. Morale is important in any war. If "homeland" becomes officially enshrined, I predict it will cause a non-trivial loss of morale -- mainly among Democrat-leaning, non-Bush-voters like me, true. But there are a lot of us. Our morale counts too, because the anti-terror effort will need our support, too. You could even argue that our morale is more crucial, since it's our morale that's most likely to slip. Red state voters will be with Bush no matter what he calls his new department. It's the blue state voters he needs to keep in line, marching in the same direction.

If "homeland" is the wrong word, what's the right word? The problem, of course, is that the right word is taken. The right word is "defense." In a linguistically honest government, what's now the Department of Defense would become the Department of War, which is the best description of what that institution is, and the projected "Department of Homeland Security" would be called the Department of Defense, which is the best description of what it is. But there's even less chance of that happening than there is of Bush appointing Giuliani to head it.

So what's wrong with "domestic security"? It gets the point across, without pretentious and disturbing PR overtones. It's the phrase ex-Senators Warren Rudman and Gary Hart use when they're not babbling about "homeland."  Noonan, for her part, has asked readers to send in suggestions (I assume to the response link at the bottom of her page). She promises to forward the ideas to Bush aide Karen Hughes.

Here's something you can do for your _______.