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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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Scare quotes have two functions, the first of which is quite straightforward: They allow their users very easily to express incredulity about, and often contempt for, the views of their political opponents. But they also allow those users to avoid the hard work of thinking up their own descriptions of events or people or ideas. And they're parasitic: They suck all their nourishment from the host words, contributing nothing of their own. Fisk's sneer quotes--he's not as scary as he'd like to be--allow him to express his revulsion at the very notion of describing what's happening in Iraq as "liberation," but relieve him of the obligation to say just what he thinks is happening in that city. Is it (as many left-wing critics have said) a new form of colonization? Ah, but that is a claim too easily refuted, unless one wishes to stretch the term beyond all historical recognition. Is it occupation? But if so, we would need to have a conversation about the purposes of occupation, some of which can be better than others. This is all too complicated; it's so much simpler to wheel out the trusty old inverted commas.

(I have a suspicion also that many journalists, even those most addicted to the scare quote, would say that it's their job merely to report, to describe--leave it to the editorialists and news analysts to offer positive explanations. But it is surely a curious understanding of reporting that allows the journalist merely, and just typographically, to cast doubt on the claims of others, without offering any reasons for that doubt or any alternatives to those claims.)

Moreover, the scare-quote habit can easily get out of hand. Witness the last sentence of Fisk's April 10 report: The "real" story for America's mastery over the Arab world starts now. You mean the real story doesn't start now? Just the "real" story? So when does the unscared, unsneered real story start? Similarly, the same day yielded this headline in the New York Times: Army Seeks to Present Troops as "Liberators." Really? One would think that the Army would want to present the troops as liberators, not as "liberators." But the Times apparently can't bear under any circumstances to use that term, in the context of the Iraq war at least, without scare quotes. Thus my description of this practice as a tic or as disease: After a while it kicks in automatically, and one wonders what habitual users could do to keep it from taking over their minds.

If Fisk takes the prize for frequency of scare-quote usage, surely for pure audacity he will have to take a back seat to Mary Riddell, writing in London's Observer (April 6). She contends that Tony Blair wants the British people to

Ignore the nastiness [of the war] and think instead of the brave "rescue" of Private Jessica Lynch from the hospital ward where she was being treated with all available medical skill.

Let's leave aside the coal-black comedy of that sentence's concluding words--we need not linger over what that "available medical skill" amounted to, which seems chiefly to have been contemplating whether to saw off one of Private Lynch's legs, possibly while one of Saddam's goons continued to slap her around--and focus on our theme for the day: If what the Special Forces team did for Private Lynch wasn't a "rescue," then what the hell was it? An abduction? An arrest? A fraternity prank? What? (And anyway, doesn't Riddell mean the "brave" rescue? It's hard to see how she managed to leave that adjective unsneered upon.)

It would be interesting to discover what would happen to some of these writers if they were denied the use of this device. I'm afraid Fisk could be reduced to spit-flecked stammers (as, so often, is Krusty) when I look at another April 7 piece in which he writes of the "coalition forces," of "embedded" journalists, of the "securing" of the city of Basra, even of "war in Iraq"--each phrase senselessly scare-quoted. ("This is an invasion, not a mere war," he insists, making a claim I cannot for the life of me see the point of. All I know is that if he had heard George W. Bush call it an invasion Fisk would roundly proclaim "This is a war, not a mere invasion.") Our intrepid reporters might have to start actually thinking about the events they describe, instead of merely reacting against anything said by Bush or Blair or CENTCOM. And surely such thinking is a task well within the capacity of "journalists" given, by some of the world's leading newspapers and magazines, the job of "reporting" on this war.

Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois. His most recent book is "A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love."