The Blog

The War in Quotes

Journalists who don't like the war--and like thinking even less--have a little trick they use to tell us how they really feel.

7:10 AM, Apr 14, 2003 • By ALAN JACOBS
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I HAVE BEEN REMARKABLY DILIGENT in keeping up with the news from the war in Iraq--some might say a little too diligent. I was the first one on my block to track the Command Post hour by hour, and I recall with a surge of pleasure the first time I got to a juicy story before Glenn Reynolds could link to it on Instapundit. But when I realized that it had become my chief goal in life to get Andrew Sullivan to post one of my letters on his website, I began to wonder if I had not misaligned my priorities. Clearly it was time to take a break from the passionate intensity of war reportage, the struggle to sift through the vast complexities of Operation Iraqi Freedom and bring some order from the chaos of data. In short, I needed some light entertainment. So I started reading Robert Fisk.

Fisk, for those who have not made his acquaintance, is the famously anti-American correspondent for the Independent of London. The substance of his writing is easy enough to indicate: imagine someone taking simultaneous dictation from Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf and Noam Chomsky. The tone--and tone is what makes Fisk Fisk--is perhaps a trifle more elusive of description, but viewers of "The Simpsons" will perhaps understand when I say that Fisk is the Krusty the Clown of journalism.

Throughout the first week of April, Fisk wrote a number of reports expressing great respect for the military power of Saddam Hussein's forces and equally great skepticism towards the coalition's account of the war's development. Here I am at Saddam International Airport, Fisk exclaimed one day, "so where are the Americans?" The day before he had confidently insisted, "The Americans were claiming to be in the inner suburbs of Baghdad--which was untrue; indeed, the story was designed, I'm sure, to provoke panic and vulnerability among the Iraqis." His faithful readers must have been quite surprised, then, when his April 10 report described the American occupation of the city and the collapse of Saddam's regime. But, reading Fisk's account, I noticed something else, which may be evident in the quotations below:

The Americans "liberated" Baghdad yesterday. . . .

Forgetting, too, that the "liberators" were a new and alien and all-powerful occupying force with neither culture nor language nor race nor religion to unite them with Iraq. . .

But tanks come in two forms: the dangerous, deadly kind and the "liberating" kind. . . .

Nor did the Americans look happy "liberators." . . .

Of course, the Americans knew they would get a good press by "liberating" the foreign journalists at the Palestine Hotel. . . .

President Bush will come here and there will be new "friends" of America to open a new relationship with the world, new economic fortunes for those who "liberated" them.

All this (and more!) in an article of less than 2,000 words. I don't know--is it just me, or do you think maybe Fisk doubts that what has happened in Baghdad is really and truly liberation?

Reflecting on this attack of punctuational Tourette's Syndrome, I started looking back through recent magazines and websites, and I discovered that among opponents of the war use of scare quotes (or "sneer quotes," as they are sometimes and with equal justice called) has become epidemic. What could be the cause of such an outbreak?