Sun, Jun 20, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Foreign policy leads us into an odd wordscape

The average lover of language has little occasion to contemplate terms such as `lustration' and `extraordinary rendition' until world events give them prominence


Should we enlist former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's former generals in combating the insurgency in Iraq? That vexing question is at the heart of an article in the New York Times Magazine regarding the pacification of Sunni insurgents in Fallujah, "The Re-Baathification of Fallujah."

"Through all this runs the difficult issue of lustration," wrote the political analyst Michael Barone in US News & World Report, helpfully adding a definition to the unfamiliar word, "how and whether to bar from power personnel of an ousted evil regime."

Tina Rosenberg, in her 1995 book, The Haunted Land, wrote: "In Czechoslovakia, I found the lustrace [pronounced lus-TRAH-tzay] law, which has become the single most controversial law passed anywhere in the former Soviet bloc to deal with the past. It bars from top government jobs those who held certain positions under communism or whose names appear in the secret police's register of informants."

A natural urge in newly freed countries is to wreak vengeance on, or at least deny continued privileges to, the oppressors of the previous regime. But the Times noted in 1992 that "Under lustration ... the determination of guilt is collective and the presumption of innocence reversed."

The word comes from the Latin lustrum, "a purifying sacrifice," which was carried out every five years in imperial Rome. As the columnist Barone notes, it will be one of the controversies facing the new government of Iraq: "On the one hand, you don't want to reward tyrants with power; on the other, you'd like to see the trains run on time ... There is no entirely satisfactory way to handle lustration."


Remember when "rendition" was a cheerful word meaning "performance," like a version of Auld Lang Syne as played by Guy Lombardo? (Because I heard this bandleader's name on the radio more often than I saw it in print, for years I thought his first name was Guylom.)

The British novelist Nicholas Monsarrat wrote in 1939: "No account of 20th-century culture would be complete without reference to the impact of the dance-band world ... as well as strange words and phrases like `rendition.'"

Long before that, in Elizabethan times, rendition meant "surrender" of a garrison or a prisoner.

Lawyers later used it as the noun form for the rendering, or giving out, of a verdict.

Then came "extraordinary rendition."

"We started using that term in the late 1970s," recalls the former New York City police commissioner Howard Safir (no relation), who was then with the US Marshals Service. "It's when we would go overseas and kidnap fugitives and bring them back to the US. We called it extraordinary rendition because, although it was legal under US law, it was not always legal under the law of the country in which the fugitive was residing."

In 1992, Safir defined the term more vividly to a House subcommittee; after extradition attempts fail, extraordinary rendition could range from luring a fugitive to a friendly country or "an outright snatch."

When the locution traveled from the Justice Department to the CIA, its meaning -- at least to outsiders -- changed from kidnapping to something even more sinister. This year, The Associated Press defined it as "the covert practice of expelling suspects to countries known to use torture to extract information."

The CIA disputes this, arguing that "rendition" means the transfer of a suspect to a nation where interrogators speak the captive's dialect and can develop cultural intimacy. George Tenet, the departing CIA chief, told the Sept. 11 commission that "disruptions, renditions and sensitive collection activities no doubt saved lives."

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