A recent broadcast of the National Public Radio broadcast RadioLab features an insightful analysis of the 60 Words in the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) following the September 2011 attacks that became the foundation for the War on Terror for more than a decade. The Joint Resolution in Public Law 107–40, 115 Stat. 224 (Sept. 18, 2001) provides:
That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
Listen to the full broadcast in the player below or at this link:
Words are sentientless morsels of meaning – inert, impotent, unassuming and seemingly incapable of bad character; yet they take on a life, at times, quite their own. This little website experiment was inspired by an observation by Zechariah Chafee Jr. – not the first, but certainly one of the best to raise the notion – and it consequently adopts is the title of his 1941 Columbia Law Review article, Disorderly Conduct of Words, 41 Colum. L. Rev. 384, in which he notes:
Words are the principal tools of lawyers and judges, whether we like it or not. They are to us what the scalpel and insulin are to the doctor, or a theodite and sliderule to the civil engineer. So we need to know more about their imperfections.
To blame the words themselves is perhaps a deflection – it’s a poor workman that blames his tools – but it also reflects the tenacity and subtlety with which words sometimes depart from their intended meaning.