Every day, America’s elected federal and state officials write to American citizens. They write legislation, resolutions, budget requests, testimonials, letters, press releases, public and private statements to one another, insertions into the public records of the White House, Congress, the Judiciary, and the Library of Congress. They use email, texts, tweets, and little handwritten notes. They write about themselves, one another, and us. They write for posterity, notoriety, advantage, money, push-back, revenge, and sympathy.

My question is: do words matter to elected officials? Do they always think about the actual words they use and the consequences of using particular words?

Take these two widely used and easily understood words:

National.

Emergency.

What do they mean in common parlance? Do the standard rules of comprehension apply to them? Does their meaning change depending on who is uttering or writing them? Is it important that context be measured when those two words are used together? Do we define them differently if they are said by someone important, like the US President? Or do those words mean the same irrespective of who says them?

The poet, Karl Krolow, said, “Now I live in the company of a few disobedient words.” Emil Cioran, the philosopher, said “Only what fails to make its way into words exists and counts.” Alice Meynell, the writer, editor, critic and suffragist, said, “He kept a harem of words, to which he was constant and absolutely faithful.” In the world of writers and readers, the word, “word, is meaningful and revered.”

Politicians use words differently than the rest of us. They use words to argue ideological points, to segregate their views from opponents, and to garner what all politicians need most: votes. The word “national,” as a standalone word, is simple enough. Used as an adjective, it means relating to a nation, common to, or characteristic of a whole nation. Used as a noun, it means a citizen of a particular country. It’s a nice clean word. It isn’t argumentative or even debatable. It only becomes political when its eight innocent letters become eleven by adding the odious “ism” to it. Nationalism is how “national” is weaponized. Once uttered, that nice word takes on a divisive tone. It drove WWII insane. It might drive the USA slightly mad.

The word “emergency,” as a standalone word is slightly more complicated than “national.” As a noun, it means a serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action. Its adjective form suggests an emergency action done, or arranged quickly, and not in the normal way, because an emergency has occurred. Normal people use it all the time, always in context, and almost always correctly. Politicians use it politically—when their tenure, or ideology is threatened, creating the danger of losing office or credibility.

If you start with national and add emergency to it, you create fighting, frightful, and fractured phrasing. If you type or print those words in all caps (NATIONAL EMERGENCY), you can energize a political base, scare the pants off half the nation, and make the other half wince. That’s where we seem to be today. The Article II President says we have a national emergency. The Article I Legislature says not so fast. The Article III Judiciary will be invited to resolve the power struggle for meaning, dollars, votes, and national sanity.

The National Emergencies Act[1] (NEA) is full of the right definitional terms: emergency, law, national, need, procedure, and power. The key word is “power.” It empowers the President to activate special powers during a crisis, but imposes procedural formalities when invoking those special powers. This law arose from the scope and number of laws granting special powers in times of national emergency. Congress can undo a state of emergency declaration with either a joint resolution and the President’s signature, or with a veto-proof majority vote.

Actually, we are under thirty-one continuing declared states of national emergencies right now.[2] Fifty-eight other national emergencies have been declared by eight Presidents since 1917, the year the NEA was born.[3] It’s never been used to build a wall on either our northern border with Canada or our southern border with Mexico. It has never been used to restrict legal or illegal travel into, or out of our country. It has only been used where both political parties, on a consensus basis, agreed there was an actual national emergency—a crisis—something that put the whole nation—all the people—in both political parties—at personal and national risk. It has only been used when there was no serious debate over two vital words: national and emergency.

If we focus on just the words and ignore the politics, what happens? Is the claim that our southern border is in “crisis” made in good faith or only for political gain? That test is political rather than grammatical. Is there a “national” emergency? What if it’s emergent but not a crisis? What if the crisis is manufactured for political gain? Do words matter when spoken by the President? Congress people? Judges? Government lawyers? The White House? Is what the White House says, different from what the President says? Are there widely accepted definitions of the suddenly famous phrase, “national emergency,” available? Is the phrase an opinion? Is it debatable? If so, who resolves the debate?

Congress can resolve it, or not. The judiciary can resolve it, or not. The former will call for congressional intestinal fortitude. The latter will call for judicial restraint. I’m not qualified to opine on the former. I have given the latter a good deal of thought over the years.

Judicial review of emergency declarations, arguably based on national security interests, have consistently established important constraints on exercising emergency powers. Because emergency measures frequently last well beyond the de facto end of the emergency, and because the wheels of justice move slowly, courts assess the validity of emergency measures only after the emergency has passed, when passions have been reduced and reasoned judgment is more attainable.

Trump’s emergency is his poll numbers; that’s not national—it’s intensely personal. His national interest is what happens in 2020, not what’s happening on our southern border in 2019. His crisis won’t be solved by building a wall any more than it is justified by the lack of a wall. Congress can and probably will solve the crisis by overturning it—a specific non-crisis vote, after due deliberation. The judiciary probably won’t get to it on time—at least not in a final judgment. But if Congress fails and the judiciary takes its time, then Trump will have his wall, and the border will neither be secure or unsecure because of it. The polls will go up. Neither will matter. 2020 cannot be walled off. Trump can.

My focus is not the political fight, which party is right or wrong, or even whether we need or don’t need a wall. Are government officials using the phrase “national emergency” acting in good faith? Is it ethical to use these two words expressly to alter or influence the 2020 election? Does it matter there is no actual national emergency, from an ethical writing perspective? I think it does.

The core premise in writing nonfiction is truth. If the written declaration of a national emergency is not true (i.e., there is no actual national emergency), but only the keeping of a political promise, then writing those two words is unethical.


Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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[1] (NEA) (Pub.L. 94–412, 90 Stat. 1255, enacted September 14, 1976, codified at 50 U.S.C. § 1601–1651) is a United States federal law passed to stop open-ended states of national emergency and formalize the power of Congress to provide certain checks and balances on the emergency powers of the President.

[2] Struyk, Ryan (10 January 2019). “Trump’s Wall Would Be the 32nd Active National Emergency”. CNNPolitics. The country is currently under 31 concurrent states of emergency about a spectrum of international issues around the globe, according to a CNN review of documents from the Congressional Research Service and the Federal Register.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_national_emergencies_in_the_United_States