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The New Vocabulary of War
An Essay by Judy Muller

audio Listen to Muller's essay.

Oct. 19, 2001 -- Eavesdrop on any conversation anywhere and you will hear the new vocabulary of our times: haz-mat, cutaneous, Cipro. I find myself longing for the days when the word prophylactic conjured up something else entirely. I also see myself longing for news items about something else -- anything else -- but it takes some doing.

Stories that would have once dominated the headlines had been consigned to the back pages: a well-known gun control advocate in Seattle is shot and killed in his home; a real estate tycoon suspected in a gruesome murder jumps bail in Texas and is now the subject of a nationwide manhunt or at least the subject of a modified manhunt, given the number of officers now assigned to hunting down bacteria.

I devour every word of those other news items. They may be terrible stories, but at least they are familiar terrors, solvable crimes. This new thing, this unspeakable, seemingly unsolvable thing, comes with its own grotesque vocabulary, and now matter how much we hear it, it's still jarring.

"'No jokes,' read the signs in the airports and they really, really mean it. Even so, something perverse takes over at those moments and every knock-knock joke I've heard comes rushing into my consciousness. I realize this involuntary perversity is simply a reaction to stress, much like a doctor testing your knee with one of those little rubber hammers."

Judy Muller

I was standing in line to be checked through security at the very small airport in Pendleton, Ore., last week when a guard with a handheld magnetometer pointed it at me and said, “Step over here, please. You have been selected for a random wanding.”

“A random wanding?” I thought to myself. I felt a dangerous giggle working its way up my throat, but, of course, I stifled it. I would never say anything out loud about this latest example of a perfectly good noun being usurped for a verb, because after all it's our understandable duty to be searched -- and above all, not to make jokes about it.

“No jokes,” read the signs in the airports and they really, really mean it. Even so, something perverse takes over at those moments and every knock-knock joke I've heard comes rushing into my consciousness. I realize this involuntary perversity is simply a reaction to stress, much like a doctor testing your knee with one of those little rubber hammers.

In a sense, we have all been chosen for random hammerings. And there appears to be no relief in sight. And so I continue to look for an antidote to absurdity, like scouring the back pages of newspapers for other news, comforting news that harks back to what we may now think of as the good old days. I find it strangely reassuring, for example, that O.J. Simpson is on trial this week in Florida, this time for a road rage incident. Of course, if you want to read that story, you'd have to turn to page three in Wednesday's USA Today. It's a short paragraph in the bottom left corner.

Judy Muller is an ABC News correspondent and author of "Now This."