Soft Words – Hard Questions


When I worked at The Times in the free, pre-Murdoch days I enjoyed life as Middle East correspondent under the leadership of a bearded, foreign-news editor called Ivan Barnes. This brilliant, immensely humorous man happily, still with us was a connoisseur of weasel words, get-out clauses and semantic humbug, and one of his favourite questions was this: what do you think of a man who begins each statement with the words, ‘To be completely frank and open with you’?

You can see his point. ‘If someone promises to be frank with you completely frank, mark you then what is he being the rest of the time?’ Barnes would ask. ‘As for œcompletely  …’

On balance, I agree that the key word the ‘fore-grounded element’ as Noam Chomsky would say in the linguistics books I read at university is ‘completely.’ It reeks of 100 per cent, of totality, of black and white.

It is also, I notice, one of Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara’s favourite words along with ‘absolutely.’ Lord Blair is always being completely and absolutely honest with us. He is always absolutely convinced he was right to invade Iraq (even when the rest of the world completely realises the opposite). He is always completely and absolutely certain of his own integrity. I call this the ‘Ho-ho’ factor.


So all the Fisk radar warnings went off this week when Blair told us that ‘we have got to address the completely false sense of grievance against the West’ felt by Muslims. Completely. Muslims’ ‘sense of grievance’ fury might be a better word is ‘completely’ false.

Is it?

We are screwing up Afghanistan, destroying tens of thousands of lives in Iraq, and America now has a military presence in Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Algeria, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen and Oman and Muslim grievance is ‘completely’ false.

No, look at Blair’s statement again. He doesn’t suggest there is even a grievance. It is a false ‘sense’ of grievance. Anyone who understands mendacity knows exactly what Blair comprehends all too well: that Muslims do have a ‘sense’ of grievance and that it is not false at all.

It’s odd, though, how folk think they can get away with this stuff. Take my old chum Professor Alan Dershowitz, who announced on the evening of 11 September 2001 that I was a ‘ dangerous man ‘ because I asked the question ‘why’ about the inter-national crimes against humanity in the United States. I was anti-American, he said, and that was the same as being anti-Semitic. Nice one, Alan. So anyone who looks for a motive for this crime don’t the police do that all the time? is a Nazi.

After all, they might ask some simple questions like, do the murderers come from the Middle East? Is there a problem out there?

This week, in an article in The Independent (UK), Dershowitz was at it again. I especially enjoyed his description of a standard US military torture, ‘water boarding.’ He described it as ‘a technique that produces a near-drowning experience.’ Ho ho. You bet it does. He says that this is torture. But why the word ‘technique’? Why does it ‘produce’ an ‘experience’? Actually, the experience is one of drowning, not ‘near-drowning’ that’s the point of this vile practice.

I love these key phrases which are littered throughout Dershowitz’s article, so soft and gentle: ‘the nature of permissible interrogation,’ ‘questionable means,’ ‘latitude’ (as in ‘should more latitude be afforded to interrogators in the preventive (sic) context’), ‘sometimes excessive efforts,’ and so on.

All this, mark you, is premised on one totally misleading statement. ‘Weapons of mass destruction in the hands of suicide terrorists with no fear of death and no home address have rendered useless the deterrent threat of massive retaliation.’ True if such people existed. But there simply hasn’t been any suicide terrorist with a weapon of mass destruction not ever.

Like the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq which were also, I recall, going to be handed over to suicide terrorists they don’t exist. What Dershowitz is actually trying to do is change the laws so that we can torture legally when faced by this mythical beast, a creature that is in fact intended to instil fear in us (and thus persuade us to go along with another round of ‘water-boarding’).

The whole torture fandango gathers weasel words like moss. Take a reference in The Wall Street Journal last month to torture as ‘ aggressive interrogation techniques .’ ‘Technique’ again, please note. I suppose that’s what you can claim the US soldier was applying when he last year stuffed an Iraqi general upside down inside a sleeping bag, sat on his chest and killed him.

Take Agim Ceku, the brutal KLA leader who has popped up as Kosovo’s Prime Minister, but who is still wanted for war crimes by Belgrade. The Financial Times did a wonderful portrait of him just over a week ago in which he was described wait for it as ‘slim and youthful … Mr Ceku, 44, exudes an effortless authority born of long experience as a military commander.’ Ho ho. You bet he does.

Chris Hitchens got in on the act last month when he tried to explain why the slaughter of 24 Iraqi civilians at Haditha didn’t mean a return to the days of My Lai massacres. So here we go. ‘Unjust though the assumption (sic) may prove to be, let us imagine that on November 19th, 2005, US Marines of Kilo company did indeed crack up and cut loose in Haditha …’ Get it? Their comrade had just been killed by insurgents. So the Americans may have ‘cracked up’ and ‘cut loose’.

Later, Hitchens describes the massacre at Haditha as ‘a white-hot few minutes’ and, later still, he talks of a ‘coalition soldier who relieves his rage by discharging a clip.’ A few seconds later and he is going on about the ‘alleged rampage.’ Rampage! Ho ho.

The point, of course, is that it takes much more than a ‘clip’ of ammunition to kill 24 civilians. And it takes a long time not a ‘few’ minutes to go from room to room, amid the shrieking children who are being slaughtered and the women trying to protect themselves from murder to blast that many people to death. Some ‘rampage.’

So what does it take to run the earth these days? Effortless authority, I suppose. A little bit of ‘excess,’ plenty of ‘technique,’ and a mere clip of ammunition.

Completely and absolutely. Ho ho.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in The Independent (UK) on 8 July 2006

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