Not Our Fight

 | 

Excuse me if I sound insensitive, but the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane by Russian separatists in Ukraine is none of our business. It wasn’t our plane, it wasn’t our country, and it isn’t our fight. Moreover, only one passenger was remotely American (I say “remotely” because he held dual citizenship and had lived in the Netherlands since he was five). So we should just keep our noses out of this one. We don’t need to impose sanctions, beef up our military presence, or drive the price of oil down in order to destroy the Russian economy, as some have suggested.

While it is a terrible shame that anyone should be killed in an accident, that’s all this really was: an accident. What seemed to be a Ukranian military jet turned out to be a passenger plane, and the shooter pulled the trigger before making certain of the target. When our troops make that kind of mistake, we call it “friendly fire,” and because it isn’t an intentional act, we hand out some medals to the victims and let the shooter slide.

Am I the first to ask the unspoken but obvious question: Didn’t they know they were flying over a war zone? Didn’t they know that Russian separatists had been shooting down Ukranian military jets for weeks? Hours after the accident, commercial airlines began diverting their flight plans around Ukraine; a map released today shows almost no planes above that country. Seems to me they should have made that adjustment as soon as the fighting broke out in Ukraine. I’m no fan of Putin, but if I were holding anyone responsible for this terrible accident, it would be the air traffic controllers and flight plan originators who allowed commercial jets to fly over a war zone.

Again, if my remarks seem insensitive, I apologize. Not one of the people on that plane deserved to die; the grief of their families is deep, and their deaths are unwarranted. But I would rather cry over 300 people killed in an accident than worry about thousands of additional soldiers sent to police the area. This one simply isn’t our fight.




Share This


Ludicrous Leporidae Laws Lead to Legal Legerdemain

 | 

When the Feds announced the sequester plan, I was quite afraid that essential federal employees would be furloughed like mere private sector employees.

Fortunately, my fears proved unfounded. Oh, sure, D.C. announced that a few thousand air traffic controllers and law enforcement officers were forced to stay home, but really essential services are safe. I present to you: the Federal Bunny Inspectors. Better known as the US Department of Agriculture.

You thought the USDA's main function was to pay farmers not to grow anything and to advertise food stamp enrollment in Mexico, didn't you? Because you’re a narrow-minded libertarian. If so, hah! Prepare to stand corrected, little miscreants.

Enter Marty Hahne, an illusionist based in Ozark, Montana. Now, Montana is a place where small businesses aren't doing too badly, considering that unemployment in the state is 5.5%, way below the national 7.6%. So obviously, this place needs more regulation.

What is Montana's most common disaster? Every resident can attest that it is the meth-addled, toothless junkie driving a three-ton truck.

That is probably why the USDA sent Hahne an 8-page message, starting with the delicious salutation "Dear Members of Our Regulated Community." You can't make this stuff up. It brings back the nostalgia of the famous "Hello happy taxpayers" line that Droopy the dog uttered in Tex Avery's cartoons.

But this is not a joke. The letter demands that Hahne write a disaster plan for the rabbit he uses in his show. We learn that the rabbit falls under a regulation dreamed up by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service under the pretense of implementing the Animal Welfare Act. Said regulation was promulgated last year, but somehow, sadly, Hahne missed it. As a result of his oversight, he has until July 29 to write his plan. He and his wife must then get training to implement the written plan and submit the plan to the USDA inspectors.The goal is to make sure that the rabbit is safe in case of a disaster.

But what is Montana's most common disaster? Every resident can attest that it is the meth-addled, toothless junkie driving a three-ton truck. I suggest, therefore, that Hahne write a document explaining that if he and his rabbit are run over by an addict, his wife could slide the rabbit under the USDA's office door for inspection. Training would be provided by regularly rehearsing the procedure, using roadkill.

However, if Hahne wants to save himself this trouble, there is an obvious solution, reportedly confirmed by a USDA inspector: conclude his show with a demonstration of a boa eating the (humanely killed) rabbit. The USDA would then consider the rabbit as a feed animal and drop its ridiculous requirements.

Other magicians have already decided to (gasp!) use stuffed animals to avoid the whole nuisance.

Let's hope that these workarounds don't gain ground. I'd hate to see our most industrious civil servants deprived of disappearing rabbits. They would then be forced to invent even more intrusive, counterproductive, obnoxious regulations in order to justify their own existence and expand their bureaucratic empires.




Share This


Isn’t It Time to Land?

 | 

This is why some people regard Word Watch as a theater of cruelty. I am about to attack the verbal antics of a spokesman for the San Francisco fire department, which was responsible for rescuing many of the people who survived the wreck of the Korean airliner at San Francisco on July 6.

People often say that catastrophes bring out the best in people. I say that they bring out the worst, verbally. The lead bureaucrat in the government investigation of the plane crash, Deborah Hersman, immediately emerged as one of the biggest blowhards in the nation, jumping into interviews and news conferences in which she announced, at length, that she had no conclusions to offer. This did not prevent her from delivering lectures about the wondrous complexity and significance of the impending inquiry, about the tremendous workload of her agency . . . you get the picture.

What can such an expression mean? Has an army of goons been deployed in this country to maim or kill any advocate of safety?

She filled out some of the borders when she commented, a few days later, on the idiotic decision of the flight crew not to allow an evacuation of the plane until they were assured by an upstart flight attendant that the thing was actually, positively on fire. (And what else do you expect planes to be, after they’ve crashed?)

When asked if it was unusual that the crew wouldn’t announce the order to evacuate, Hersman said the pilots might not have been aware of the damage in the cabin.

"We don't know what the pilots were thinking, but I can tell you, in previous accidents there have been crews that don't evacuate," she said. "They wait for other vehicles to come to get the passengers out safely. Certainly if there's an awareness that there's a fire aboard the aircraft, that is a very serious issue. There was a fire, and then the evacuation began."

"Hindsight is 20/20," she continued. "We all have a perspective that's different than the people involved in this. We need to understand what they were thinking, what their procedures are, whether they complied with these, whether that evacuation proceeded in a timely manner" (Los Angeles Times,July 10).

Blah, blah, blah. Here’s a person who can fill any number of columns, yapping about what she doesn’t know. And by the way, Ms. Hersman, if you don’t know what the pilots were thinking, go ask them. You’re the “National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman.” But also by the way, the plane had crashed. Its landing gear had been ripped off. Its tail was missing. Miraculously, it had come to rest on a dry, flat piece of land. Who cares what the pilots “were thinking”? They should have been evacuating the passengers. Right away.

In some circles, the bloviating Ms. Hersman is known as “a fearless advocate of safety.” Tell me: what can such an expression mean? Has an army of goons been deployed in this country to maim or kill any advocate of safety? If so, I also bid the goons defiance. Fearlessly I declare: I advocate safety!

Now we return to the scene of the accident, maybe three minutes after the crash. Flames are spurting from the airplane; fire engines are arriving; passengers, thank God, have taken it into their heads to evacuate. And, very unfortunately, one of them, a teenage girl, has been killed, apparently by a fire engine on its way to the wreck. Certainly, no one was trying to run her over. All was confusion: a giant machine, smashed to the ground, leaking fuel and shooting flames; hundreds of passengers, still alive but in desperate need of medical assistance; rescue vehicles racing from every direction. I feel sorry for whatever would-be rescuer ran down the young woman, if the coroner’s office is right in thinking that’s what occurred. But I hope that he or she feels no guilt. The driver was not responsible. The woman died. It was no one’s fault.

But about 36 hours later, along comes Dale Carnes, the aforementioned spokesman for the San Francisco fire department, to explain what happened:

Approximately half to two-thirds of the way through the incident as we were transitioning from the fire attack and rescue phase into both overhauling the fire in the aircraft and starting to concentrate on the three-minute transport of patients it became aware to one of our fire attack battalion chiefs that there was a possibility that one of their two fatalities might have been contacted by one of our apparatus at an unknown point during the incident.

Could anyone have constructed a more gruesome pile of words? And the guy wasn’t stumbling along; he was proceeding calmly and confidently, as if he had rehearsed those very phrases. That’s the horrible thing. People learn — they are trained — to communicate in that way.

Suppose that you didn’t know, more or less, what had happened. Would you ever have guessed what that 79-word sentence was about?

Let’s take it in order.

  • “Approximately.” One rule of bad wording is never to use a short word (“about”) when you can use a long one (“approximately”).
  • “Incident” (note that this word is repeated). Disasters become incidents when someone with an official position changes the focus from something that went wrong to something that just, you know, happened.
  • “Transitioning,” used instead of the common “going from” or “changing from.” Always be long; always be Latinate; always be pseudo-technical.
  • “Fire attack and rescue phase,” used instead of “fighting the fire and rescuing people.” An assertion of professionalism is always more important than saying what happened so that other people can understand it.
  • “The three-minute transport of patients.” You don’t know what that is? Too bad for you. Does it mean they’re supposed to be picked up in three minutes, or delivered somewhere in three minutes? And where are they being delivered? To a hospital, or to some memory hole where they can lie in peace, next to the English language?
  • “It became aware.” Did the spokesman ever read a word of English? I mean, actual writing in English? Did he ever notice that, in written English, things (“it”) cannot become aware? But actually, they can’t become aware in spoken English, either. Because they’re things, that’s all. Nevertheless, “it became aware” is growing on us. Watch for it. Try to avert it.
  • “There was a possibility.” Observe how the distant past is creeping up on us here. There may possibly have been another incident at some “unknown point during the incident,” but the only way it’s becoming aware to us is that, we are told, some unnamed official detected the “possibility” at some other point, after the incident within the incident.
  • “One of their two fatalities might have been contacted by one of our apparatus.” In published redactions of these remarks, “their” is often rendered as “the.” In video versions, it’s “their.” So the speaker lost control of his referent. But he remained very much in control of his theme, which was that nothinghappened. Well, nothing much. It was an incident. With some other incidents attached. There were two fatalities. (Nobody died; that would be going too far.) “Contacted,” of course, means run over. If you’re like me, you would rather be contacted by an apparatus than run over by a fire engine. I dunno; maybe it’s just a subjective preference, but that’s the way I feel. I’ve been contacted by many apparatuses in my time, and suffered no harm. But now the fire department informs me that a fatality might have been contacted by an apparatus. Picture that, if you can. Evidently, however, that is what the fire department does not want you to do. Otherwise its spokesman would say that “a person who had escaped from the burning airplane may accidentally have been killed by a fire engine.”

Like much bureaucratic talk, the language I’ve been analyzing is not only absurd and arrogant, and offensive to normal human feeling; it is also false to the conditions of normal human life. The horror of a young person who escaped from one disaster only to be overwhelmed by another — that is matter for profound reflection, because it exemplifies conditions that are, regrettably, not abnormal at all. The horror of a driver who, with the best intentions, is speeding to the scene of an accident and who accidentally destroys the life of another person on the way — if that’s what happened, it’s a matter for the deepest human sympathy. The bureaucratic “language” panders to whatever inclination the audience may have to ignore the facts and the problems and proceed as if all of it had, in fact, been explained, or at least officially encapsulated. Move along; there’s nothing to see here.

Another bad thing — I was going to say the worst thing &‐ about this kind of talk is that it’s not even naturally produced. No one just pops out with “overhauling” as a synonym for “putting down,” or “apparatus” as a synonym for “fire engine,” or “at an unknown point during the incident” as a synonym for “at some time.” Granted, “it became aware” is simple ignorance, but why should people ignorant of words be chosen to speak for official agencies? Presumably because they can be trained in jargon. I wonder how much tax money is spent on this enterprise alone.

Disasters become incidents when someone with an official position changes the focus from something that went wrong to something that just, you know, happened.

You might, however, bring up another sense of the word natural. You might suggest that bureaucracies naturally resort to obfuscation, because they want to protect themselves. You might suggest that because they are collective and usually collectivist organizations, they often try to protect themselves in silly ways. There can be no check on silliness when no one in the org wants to stand out against the mob of “colleagues” and say, “This makes no sense.” If you reasoned in that way, I think you would be right. You would have identified one reason why nonsensical language is flooding our bureaucratized society.

But now for something completely different. Here’s what was posted on the Facebook page of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, just before the army conducted its coup: "We swear to God that we will sacrifice even our blood for Egypt and its people, to defend them against any terrorist, radical or fool.”

I’m stating no view about the coup itself. It’s really none of my business. But I like the statement. It’s short; it’s serious; and it uses words that actually mean something. It doesn’t call terrorism “workplace violence.” And it ends with the word fool. This is an expression that is seriously underused in American society and especially in American formal language. The Bible doesn’t mind calling people fools; the word appears, with its various derivations, about 100 times in the King James Version. “Fool” runs back through Old French and Latin into the original Indo-European, which apparently used it in the sense of “windbag.” In English, it eventually came to be used for people with more serious impairments, although it’s hard for me to think of any impairment that is worse than being a windbag — if only because, in our bureaucratized society, people are actually rewarded for being that way. And now, the curtain of psychological correctness has descended. “Idiot,” “moron,” and “imbecile” are out, not just as pseudo-clinical terms, but also as terms of social analysis. And so is “fool.”

I think it needs to be restored — as a term of analysis, not just of abuse. Some people are mistaken. Fine. Other people are fools. It’s a distinct species, requiring identification and understanding. Words are the tools of understanding. As the Egyptian generals maintain, someone’s folly, once identified and understood, can become a reason for taking action, in a way that someone’s mere mistakenness may not be. It is a sad day when America’s terms of analysis are less useful than Egypt’s.




Share This


An Education in Perspective

 | 

Perspective. We've all seen those optical illusions in which two identical circles seem to be of different sizes when they are juxtaposed against smaller or larger squares. It's all about perspective.

That's one of the points made by the film The Impossible, the true story of a family caught in the devastating tsunami that hit the Asian coast on the day after Christmas, 2004. As the Belon family fly into Thailand on Christmas Eve, they worry about normal things. Henry (Ewan McGregor) is certain that they have forgotten to set the security alarm as they left their house, and he worries that their belongings might be gone when they return home. Maria (Naomi Watts) and young son Thomas (Samuel Joslin) panic as turbulence makes the plane bounce. Sons Lucas (Tom Holland) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) squabble as young brothers are wont to do. Later that day Henry confesses to Maria that his job is threatened by an up-and-coming coworker. "How will we survive if I lose my job?" he wonders.

It's natural to worry about these kinds of things, of course. Under normal circumstances, people would be foolish not to worry about protecting homes and jobs. And children, for that matter. When Maria mentions to a hotel worker, "I'm a doctor, but right now I'm staying home to raise the boys," the worker responds with a smile, "Oh! You've been promoted."

But when the circles of financial insecurity and airline turbulence are pictured beside the gigantic squares of a 9.1 earthquake and its raging tsunami, perspective changes. Suddenly the circle of family is the only one that matters.

The Impossible is emotionally intense, ranging from gutwrenching to heartbreaking to heartwarming as the tale of devastation and survival unfolds. The Belon family is relaxing beside the hotel pool on a sunny day when the debris laden flood suddenly engulfs them, sweeping them in different directions. Underwater scenes of the flooding are dramatic and claustrophobic, conveying well the sense of panic one would feel while drowning. Miraculously, Maria and Lucas emerge from the flood near one another, and they frantically struggle to stay together as they are pushed forward by the rushing water. Maria is badly hurt when her leg and chest are gashed by debris. When the water finally subsides, we see that the back of her leg is torn to the bone and the skin of her thigh is hanging like a slab of meat. She needs help. But so do thousands of others. And they are the lucky ones. They're alive. We see scenes of survivors looking desperately for loved ones at hospitals and makeshift refugee camps, even searching through piles of corpses. Just to know.

Other values change as well. Certain commodities cannot be replaced. Cellphone juice, for instance. In a disaster like this, everyone wants to call home, hoping that other surviving family members will have done the same thing. By leaving messages with family back home, they might be able to locate those others who survived. In this film, several people have cellphones, but no one has a way to recharge the batteries. Consequently, cellphone power becomes irreplaceable — and irreplaceable commodities become priceless. Money becomes virtually useless, because money's only true value is in the commodity or service for which it can be traded. So how can one obtain necessities?

After the tsunami subsides, Henry meets a couple near the hotel who have not been hurt by the flood or separated from their loved ones. They just want to get home. When Henry asks to use the man's phone to call his father-in-law and see if Maria has tried to contact him, the couple refuse. "We only have a little power left, and we need it for ourselves," the man says. And he's right. Under the circumstances, I might react the same way.

Later, however, Henry meets Karl (Sonke Mohring), whose family is also missing. Both of them are desperate, lonely, and afraid. Karl has a phone with a small charge left. He offers Henry his phone. Money is useless, but trades are still made: Karl offers compassion, and Henry pays with gratitude. It seems to be a fair exchange for both. Meanwhile, those who were least hurt by the tsunami needed neither compassion nor gratitude. They could afford to hoard their juice, and no one commandeers their phones.

In the end this is a film about what matters. And what matters is not home security alarms or jobs in office buildings but family. The bond between Maria and young Lucas as he becomes the caretaker of his badly injured mother is tender and heart wrenching. The desperation felt by Henry as he searches for his missing family, and the grief expressed by others whose families are lost forever, is intensely moving. Bring a hanky. In fact, bring several.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Impossible," directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. Apaches Entertainment, 2012, 114 minutes.



Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.