Law in Contemporary Society
(as I wrote in my comments to the comments on my first pass at this, I think the error of writing a response rather than revising was more grievous than whatever faults {however serious} I had in the essay itself. I have therefore scrapped my first revision of Peter's paper and revised from his second version).

Innocence, Language, and the Law


Whenever the victims of suicide bombings or air strikes are catalogued, the victims seem to include women, children, or other “innocent victims.” The traditional print media’s caution in calling victims “innocent” only adds to the phrase’s power. When members of the public comment on news stories, they show no such hesitation. The power of the mantle “innocent women and children” can teach us how word choice implicitly expresses value judgments.

Who is Innocent?

When a newspaper or a [][politician]] says that the victim of a suicide bombing was “innocent,” what, exactly, does it mean? Is there some crime heinous enough that, were you guilty of it, blowing you up while you walked through the market would be fair? Does it mean that the victim was not innocent of whatever perceived political grievance fueled the attack? A journalist, politician, or bystander who speaks of an innocent victim too frequently doesn’t answer this question; we should demand that they do.

Once we know what the innocent victim was not guilty of, we should ask whether it matters. Were the bond traders of Cantor Fitzgerald, as players in international finance capitalism, less worthy of sympathy than the busboys of Windows on the World? If the members of an industrialized country cause more pollution, is there some justification in an ecoterrorist targeting them?

Women and Children v. Men

That leads us to our third and final question: Are we concerned with people’s actions, or merely with gender and age – that is, does it matter that people are "innocent" or that they are "women and children." In the classic ship wreckage scenario, the “women and children first” policy might make some sense since men are considered to be stronger and therefore better equipped to rescue themselves.

In suicide bombings or air strikes, however, everyone is equally vulnerable, but even news sources that hesitate to call anyone "innocent" will always mention that the dead inlcuded women and children. What message does this practice send? Orwell pointed out, at a time when urban bombings disproportionately killed the elderly who could not evacuate: “I can’t feel that war is ‘humanized’ by being confined to the slaughter of the young and becomes ‘barbarous’ when the old get killed as well.” But if we believe him, why do journalists still explicitly mention the death of women and children?

Language’s Purpose and Impact

In my view, those who highlight “innocence” are implicitly expressing at least two opinions: First, it is better to kill guilty people than innocent people. Second, it is better to kill men than women and children. By packaging the opinions in the language of innocence and the well-being of children, the speakers avoid the harshness of expressing their opinions directly. Still, many readers and listeners will internalize the viewpoint without even knowing it, and begin to accept the views (implicitly) expressed. We receive the message all the more passively when it is so subtly delivered.

Of course, the innocent victim is not the only turn of phrase that infiltrates our view of the world. Most of us are blithely unaware of the racial, gender, status, and class assumptions undergirding so many of the images we see: men advertise cars, women advertise detergent, and when Danny Hoch gets cast on Seinfeld, he is asked to fake a Spanish accent. In most movies, people see marriage as the ultimate fulfillment of life. Do the gender roles displayed by the romantic fantasies influence women who chose to stay at home and look after the children instead of pursuing their professional career? Do they have a role in making men chose one profession over another, or chose to work instead of staying home with children? Why is it still unusual for a man to change his last name upon marriage? How conscious can we be of our decisions, or are they all based on internal and unquestioned traditions and views shown in almost every TV series?


There are no easy answers to the questions raised above. Whether we believe that a child’s death is more tragic than an adult’s, or whether we agree with Orwell that no death is less tragic than another, we should be aware of how we came to those beliefs, and whether the language and images that bombard us every day influenced them. When others tell us what they think, we may even ask to what degree they came to those opinions on their own, and to what degree they were suggested by image, language, and other subtle processes. Moreover, when we speak and write to others, we should take the time think of whether we are in fact passing on subtextual ideas and unsaid assumptions, and if so, whether we mean to.

As people that change the world through words, lawyers should be all the more aware of the burdens, power, and assumptions of language. In Western societies, lawyers do not only perform as attorneys, prosecutors and judges, they are also highly involved in politics, business, and more and more even media. Lawyers rely on words more than most other professions do. So whenever we hear, read or speak, we should be awake to the implicit values embedded in our words.


Webs Webs

r15 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:03:15 - IanSullivan
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