Unlock that battleground!

What's up with "key battleground states"? We don't mean Massachusetts, important as the site of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. We do mean Pennsylvania, though not because it includes Gettysburg.

The locution "key battleground states," for any of you who have completely tuned out the presidential race, has congealed into a set phrase to refer to those states whose voting this fall is not a foregone conclusion. Not that these 17 or so states thought to be capable of swinging toward either President Bush or Senator Kerry aren't often referred forthrightly to as "swing states." Google News, when I checked the other night, showed the phrase "swing states" being used more than seven times for every one reference to "key battleground states." But I'm surprised that this trinomial term - the verbal equivalent of a semi with two trailers behind it - has caught on to the extent it has.

"Key" is a short word beloved of headline writers who press it into service to mean "important" or "critical." (When space is tight, even "critical" may be too long.) But it works best when it retains that sense of "unlocking" something: Key supporters encourage others to get aboard; key contacts open the doors (sometimes quite literally) to other contacts. "Key" can work in military contexts: Success at Normandy was key to the liberation of Paris, we can sensibly say. But better to call the victory "key" than merely the battle, and better the battle than the battleground.

And by the way, don't we have enough "war" going on around us? Wouldn't it be good to keep the presidential election not only civil but civilian? War is the continuation of politics by other means, as Karl von Clausewitz famously wrote. I would not want to have to explain to him why America seems bent on turning politics into a continuation of war by other means.

The West gets collectively nervous when the Islamic world seems to be too much about jihad. But how often must the American polity seem, to those outside it, to be caught up in military metaphors?

Mourning a missed metaphor

Now that the Schlesinger report on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal is out, I have to register respectful regret that the former Defense secretary and his fellow panelists chose to speak in their report of the need to equip American troops with a "sharp moral compass."

I couldn't agree more with what I'm sure was meant. But an opportunity was missed here to harness the energy of an extended metaphor. Sharp? "Strong" would have been better. "Sharp" suggests the geometric compass, whose point penetrated the pulpy lined newsprint we wrote on in school.

Surely the magnetic compass is the one that was meant. To recap what we all know: A compass needle is a magnetized bit of iron that, allowed to swing freely, aligns itself with the earth's magnetic field and points north. It actually points to magnetic north, not true north, but it gets close enough to make the magnetic compass one of the key (that word again!) instruments of human history, making possible the great voyages of discovery.

Could we ask for a better metaphor? Yes, the needle trembles a bit when the compass is whipped out by an excited or nervous scout who fears he is lost. But it soon settles down.

And so it is with our moral decisions. Sometimes the issues are complex and take time to think through. But the right answer comes as we seek to align our behavior in the moment with our highest sense of principle. As the Scout compass of youth helped us find our way out of the literal dark woods, so a strong moral compass helps us through the dark woods of the challenges we face as adults - even something as grave as Abu Ghraib.

This appears with links at: http:// weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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