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le mot injuste

this may not be the time to start picking apart people’s grammar. after all, with the threat of imminent disaster looming (more distinctly than it has recently), people are concerned about their families, their homes, the things that are truly important to them. world leaders have to think about more than finding the exact right phrasing for their public addresses, right?

not exactly.

the volume and intricacy of human communication is one of the hallmarks of our species. unlike animals, who identify each other by smell or intuition, or even like our ancestors, who operated by sight, our methods of knowing and understanding each other are increasingly based on our communication. words that are spoken and the body language that accompanies them, take on an exaggerated importance when they come from the mouths of leaders in times of crisis.

so today, i was a little disturbed (although not terribly surprised) when I read the following comment by john reid, british home secretary, that the planned bombings would have caused casualties on an “unprecedented scale”. sure about that, john?

now, i know what he was trying to say. he meant that the scale would have been greater than other terrorist attacks. but that isn’t what he said. he said casualties on an unprecedented scale. and to a western audience, like me, who know what he means, the statement is fairly harmless. but what does it sound like to someone in iraq? or lebanon? or somalia? it sounds like the british home secretary is saying that the casualties that matter are ones where their own people are killed. it serves the interests of organisations like hezbollah, who promise to protect citizens from the westerners (and israelis) who at best believe their lives and deaths mean nothing.

to be clear, i don’t think that reid meant to imply callousness. but as the media influence becomes all-pervasive and people everywhere rely more and more on the words and actions of political leaders as keys to deciphering meaning, it matters less what’s in your head and more what comes out of your mouth. you don’t diffuse a mine field by running into it blindfolded. dangerous, delicate situations call for extreme caution.

(not to be outdone, george w bush made a boneheaded statement of his own this afternoon, one that he has made before. he referred to terrorist groups as “islamic fascists”. george, i don’t know how your grades were in school, i’m guessing not great, but history is one of the things that you’re supposed to understand when you’re a world leader. the term fascist is not just an epithet or a synonym for political evil, to be applied liberally in discussions of groups you don’t like. it is a political term with a specific meaning, one that happens to be completely inappropriate in the context you gave it. i don’t know why you decided to use the term to describe terrorists, who don’t even run a government, so they can’t represent an authoritarian state, but i suspect it’s because you lack imagination and any sense of historical perspective and used the first political-sounding term that came into your head as equivalent to “nasty”. you aren’t helping. you aren’t making a valid point. what you are doing is reinforcing the belief held by most people that you aren’t up to the job you have. my advice (not that you asked)? you aren’t running for re-election, so you have nothing to lose. why not save the rest of the world a lot of trouble and take a vow of silence for the next two years? your friends will benefit more than anyone.)

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