Let’s Stop Saying “Nuclear Option”

Must politicians and journalists succumb to the language of war?

Or the flip side: Must we put words like “peace” on weapons of war? I’m thinking of the U.S. nuclear missiles called “peacekeepers.”

Test launch of LGM-118 Peacekeeper Intercontinental ballistic missile by United States Air Force 2002. Photo By United States Air Force [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The “war” on this or that, we say, or the dropping of “bombs” to mean big news; the use of “killer” as an adjective synonymous with “great” or “fabulous”; “scorched-earth policy” and other casual references to war to suggest extremity: must we?

The term in use today to describe what Republicans will likely do in the Senate to confirm Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is the “nuclear option.”  The phrase suggests that using actual nuclear weapons is a rational, if extreme, option, like the so-called “limited nuclear war.”

We understand, of course, that using language like “nuclear option” in the Senate is only metaphor having nothing to do with actual weapons. But we don’t merely shape language; language also shapes us. Breaking a Senate filibuster by suspending an old rule (not unprecedented, by the way) is hardly the cataclysmic political equivalent of using a nuclear weapon. Far worse things can happen in government, and may happen under Mr. Trump. The threat of a nation employing a real “nuclear option” has suddenly increased.

So let’s drop the war metaphors, please. Let’s not talk ourselves into accepting war, especially nuclear war. Associating “nuclear” with “option” should never be an option.

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