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Mindless inventiveness for checkered legacies

by Hiroaki Sato

When Ariel Sharon died Jan. 12, Karl Vick, of Time magazine, had an article with the heading “Quiet Turnout for Ariel Sharon’s Lying in State,” with the subheading “The former Prime Minister’s eight-year-long coma has given Israel time to come to terms with his absence and legacy.”

What did Vick mean by “come to terms with” in this instance?

Did he intend the idiom to mean “accept,” “reconcile oneself to,” “learn to live with,” “become resigned to,” “make the best of,” “confront squarely and come to understand fully and objectively” (Free Dictionary), or “start to accept and deal with a difficult situation” (Cambridge Idioms Dictionary)?

With Sharon’s “absence,” the simple “accept” or “gradually accept a sad situation, often the death of someone you love” (Cambridge Dictionary) may well be what Vick meant. After all, Sharon “suffered a massive stroke” on Jan. 3, 2006, and no one seriously expected him to recover. One gathers that only the best Israeli medical efforts kept the man alive.

But most people do not need as many as eight years to “accept” the absence of someone in such condition, let alone “confront squarely and come to understand [it] fully and objectively.”

However, with his “legacy,” the idiom as Vick used it becomes murky and vague because of what Sharon did and was.

“Ariel Sharon, Israeli Hawk Who Sought Peace on His Terms,” The New York Times headlined, reporting his death. Doing the same, The Los Angeles Times said: “Ariel Sharon, Israel’s controversial, iron-willed former leader, dies.”

The Washington Post’s headline said: “Former Israeli prime minister epitomized country’s ‘Warrior’ past.” This refers to Sharon’s 2001 autobiography simply called “Warrior.”

The Independent put the matter more bluntly: “Ariel Sharon: Peacemaker, Hero … Butcher.”

To elaborate on Sharon’s role as a “hawk,” “warrior,” or “butcher,” another New York Times article (“Israel and World Grapple With Sharon’s Mixed Legacy”) quoted Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, saying it was a “shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice.”

Whitson cited Sabra and Shatila to characterize his death as “another grim reminder that years of virtual impunity for rights abuses have done nothing to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer.” Sharon is estimated to have had 1,700 refugees in those places killed.

A few months before Sabra and Shatila, Sharon lied to his own prime minister that “his forces would advance only a few miles across the frontier, then laying siege to Beirut — at a cost of around 17,000 lives,” noted The Independent.

Karl Vick himself directs the reader to “a list of atrocities” prepared by the Institute of Middle East Understanding, called “Atrocities and Bantustans: The Legacy of Ariel Sharon.” It is a long list.

So, what did Vick mean in saying that Sharon’s eight-year “absence” gave Israel to “come to terms with his legacy”?

That the troubled country came to accept that Sharon was both a hero and a butcher? That it came to resign itself to those facts? That it started to accept and deal with it?

Ah, “accept and deal with.” That’s another nebulous phrase. To “deal with” can mean to “take action on” (e.g., each problem) and to “punish” (e.g., the culprit), according to the Collins English Dictionary.

Did Vick mean that Israel, during Sharon’s coma, had taken action on his deeds and punished him for his “atrocities” for which the Israeli court held him “personally responsible”?

Nothing of the sort.

I decided to bring this up, though, first because Robert Fisk, who wrote “Ariel Sharon: Peacemaker, Hero … Butcher” for The Independent, listed the idiom “come to terms with” in what may be called his linguistic New Year resolution for 2014: “Let there be an end to all these cliches.” They are “invented words” and “verbal lies.”

Fisk is a chronicler of “crimes against humanity” committed in the Middle East — not just by the Middle East countries themselves but also by the Western countries that created them, disrupted them, and continue to mess with them. Read not just his column, but his tome, “The Great War for Civilization” (2005).

On his list of cliches he wants swept away, “come to terms with” is followed by “seek closure” and to “move on,” which prompts him to add, “the latter an officially declared — and understandable — desire of the Labor Party over Iraq.”

By the Labor Party, Fisk means Tony Blair, “Bush’s poodle,” no doubt and, by extension, the U.S. triumvirate over the invasion and destruction of Iraq: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Will future commentators say, after the death of any of these men, that the U.K. or the U.S. has come to terms with his “legacy”? The odds are, they will.

But I mainly wanted to talk about “come to terms with” because the idiom is used with such mindless frequency when the matter has to do with Japan and World War II. Take a look at the Internet, and you at once see:

“Japan hasn’t come to terms with its war” (New York Times, 1990).

“… unless Japan comes to terms with its history” (Businessweek, 2001).

“Japan’s failure to come to terms with its past” (Inquirer, 2013).

“The Japanese themselves need to come to terms with their own history” (East Asian Forum, 2013).

The first of these is the New York Times playing its usual scold’s role over Japan, but all make me wonder: When it comes to Japan and its “past,” will people ever stop their knee-jerk parroting of each other?

There is some hope. In “War Guilt and World Politics After World War II” (2012), Thomas Berger, who teaches international relations at Boston University, suggests that the intransigent nationalism of South Korea and China that has grown decades after the fact is partly responsible for the appearance of the Japanese inability to recognize what Japan did in those countries.

I remember the decades when Zhou Enlai’s “charm diplomacy” held sway. China was intent on demonstrating to Japanese visitors that its people, transformed under socialism, harbored no ill will against those who had trampled upon them only a few decades earlier.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.