Words must be credible

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“No one can now doubt the word of America”
By Tom Engelhardt

Picking up the New York Times, my hometown newspaper, the morning after the President delivered his State of the Union address, I immediately noted the half-page headline: “Bush, Somber and Determined, Stresses War Against Terror.” Somber and Determined? Okay, maybe it sounds like it came directly from the wordsmiths of the Republican National Committee, but we do have to give the headline writers of the paper of record a little slack. Who knows what pressures they were under as they prepared to label our imperial president at the podium for us? And I have to admit that I only heard him on the radio where — but maybe I’m channeling the Democratic National Committee — “somber” and “determined” weren’t quite the first adjectives that leaped to mind.

The speech, meant to obliterate those sixteen difficult little words of the previous year’s speech and sweep the tussling Democrats offstage all at once, was promptly subjected to a morning-after wave of interpretation on TV, in the press, and in blog- and Internet-land as well. And, of course, everyone, including the Times editors, brought their baggage with them. Still, that Times headline, incongruously placed above a photo of George Bush happy and beaming rather than somber and determined as he made his way to the podium, stayed in my mind all day and finally drove me back to the speech, printed up in the same paper of record (under a photo of the President at the podium visibly smirking). I wanted to see those “somber” and “determined” words on paper. Hearing a speech delivered and reading it are, of course, quite different experiences. I wondered what might happen if I turned to his words — okay, not his exactly, but his speechwriters’ words, his political handlers’ words — in the light of day and on the page.

On my first read-through, here’s the sentence that jumped out at me. It ended a passage on the recent Libyan offer to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction: “And one reason [for the Libyan decision] is clear: For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible — and no one can now doubt the word of America.”

Words must be credible. Well, that seemed a sentence to live by, and given that the State of the Union is meant to be the President’s version of “the word of America,” I thought I might skip interpretation, even meaning, and simply turn to the words themselves, more or less stripped of context, to try to glimpse the skeletal structure that underlay the speech. I wondered what, if anything, they might add up to. What scale exactly they might tip and what might be learned from them.

On my second reading of the first half of the speech, which focused on America in the world, I automatically began to underline, circle and count — and here’s my little summary of the words of that part of the State of the Union, a quick, crude toting up whose cumulative weight does, I suspect, tell us something that bears strikingly little relationship to the words “somber” and “determined.”

In the first half of the speech, the words “terror” or “terrorists” were used 14 times; some form of “kill” (“killers,” “killed,” “killing”) 10 times; war 7 times; and that doesn’t count the various stand-ins for war or warlike actions (“aggressive raids,” “attack,” “offensive,” “patrols,” “operations,” “battle,” “armored charges,” “midnight raids,” “on the offensive,” and the slightly more opaque “pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the Greater Middle East,” a favorite phrase of our vice president as well);”weapons” was used 8 times (usually in the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” or “of mass murder,” or in one case in the extraordinarily convoluted phrase, “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities”); “threat” appeared 4 times, “hunting” or “manhunt” 3 times; “capture” 3 times; ditto “tracking”; “plotting” four times; “danger” in some form four times including “ultimate danger”; some form of the word “violent” three times; “thugs” twice; some form of “enemy” 3 times.

Among other words occurring at least once were: patrolling, vigilance, assassins, disrupt, seize, tragedy, trial, catch, fear, chaos, carnage, torture, tyrant, tyranny, despair, anger, brutal, hateful propaganda, prison cell, shake the will.

And even some normally positive words fell into this category in a process akin to guilt-by-association as in the phrase, “enemies of reform and allies of terror.”

In this swirl of verbal mayhem, some form of the words “secure” and “safe” appeared 9 times, but often as in “movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends” or as in the Homeland Security Department. “Security” also appeared in the classic line: “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people,” which based on the image evoked probably should have been moved to the “education” section that followed in the second half of the speech.

“Peace” or “peaceful” appear three times in this avalanche of horror, once linked to “war” (“…and cast the difficult votes of war and peace”). And “strength” or “strong” appear numerous of times.

This list is by no means a full one. And note that this part of the speech — about the first twenty minutes or so of what 60 millions Americans tuned into — was a mere 2,254 words long. This then is the world, as painted in words, of our “somber” and “determined” president. Can anyone doubt that it’s a vision meant to scare Americans to death? You simply can’t write such words so many times over and in such variety without conscious intent. And this it seems to me is the bedrock version of the state of our planet, as the Bush administration is determined that we see without any countervailing vision whatsoever. It’s a planet that makes Hobbesian look like a polite term. This is the world made “safer” by the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Copyright C2004 Tom Engelhardt