Loyalty oaths

The 110th Congress of the United States has just been sworn in. In anticipation of the event, I did a little poking around to find out what's involved in the ceremony. The presidential oath of office is spelled out in the Constitution, but an oath for members of Congress is indicated only in general terms. Here is the current version:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God."

The oath confirms that the individual members are loyal, in other words – "faithful in allegiance to the sovereign or constituted government," as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it in one of its definitions, the one it calls "the most prominent in use."

Loyalty has been much on my mind in recent months because it's been much in my ear. I've been hearing a lot about it from two different directions. One is the domestic political front. President Bush is famous for valuing personal loyalty. So is incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But on the war-news front, we hear a lot about loyalty in other contexts. We keep hearing about "militias loyal to" this or that leader, typically not a leader of a state but someone powerful enough to make the official government nervous, or worse.

The "militias loyal to" construction is one of those locutions news organizations settle on to refer to an entity or a situation that is otherwise hard to explain in three words or less.

That such partisans are armed is so self-evident that it can't be controversial to say so, and this lets editors on tight deadline avoid the nettlesome nuances of "terrorist" versus "freedom fighter." Loyalty being generally a virtue, to describe these people as "loyal to" anyone in particular arguably makes many of them sound better than they deserve.

I've just done a quick check and readily found several countries where "militias loyal to" someone other than the head of a constitutional government are major players. From The Guardian, on Iraq:

"A Pentagon report on Monday said that the Mahdi Army, the armed militia loyal to the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, had eclipsed al-Qaida as the most dangerous agent of sectarian violence."

The same phenomenon has been troubling Somalia, Lebanon, Sudan, and Congo (formerly Zaire).

Recent media reports have also been mentioning a possible civil war in the Palestinian territories. And so I was concerned to see the word "loyal" pop up, albeit without "militia," in a recent story on factional violence in the West Bank: "Security members loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas attacked Hamas members...."

Loyal came to English from Latin via Old and Medieval French, and is related to legal. It has an obsolete meaning of "legitimate" – in "King Lear," Shakespeare makes reference to a "loyall and naturall boy."

But however rooted in law the word is etymologically, its meaning is connected with affection, with personal relationships and attachments. "Faithful to plighted troth," is part of Oxford's definition of loyal. That very serious-sounding phrase refers to commitments like marriage. (I recall once upon a time reading an interview with a state legislator who remarked that her swearing-in ceremony actually called for her to say "I do.")

The war-zone reports show the dark side of loyal, when partisan commitments may be the best anyone can make.

One might say that members of the 110th Congress are fortunate to have a constitutional system to be loyal to. In a perhaps brief moment of fresh beginnings and goodwill in Washington, it's something not to be taken for granted.

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

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