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September 11, 2004

Noting Who's Passive

A juxtaposition of two sentences from statements of the two main candidates for President of the United States is instructive. Here's President Bush, from his radio address:

So we will not relent until the terrorists who plot murder against our people are found and dealt with.

And here's John Kerry, from his own radio address today:

And we are one America in our unbending determination to defend our country – to find and get the terrorists before they get us.

"Will not relent" versus "unbending determination"; the first implies offense, forward attack; the second implies standing stiff in defense and inherently raises the specter of "bending determination." "The terrorists who plot murder against our people" versus just "the terrorists [who seek] to get us."

But what's more interesting, at least from my perspective, is the difference that the speaker makes to the meaning of the language that he uses. Ordinarily, I'd suggest that "found and dealt with" is a weaker, less determined phrase than "find and get them before they get us." Not only is Bush's phrase in the passive voice, but "dealt with" is vague and indecisive. Pulling the microscope back a bit, however, confirms that the immediate context conforms with the context of each speaker's persona. Here's Bush:

The United States is determined to stay on the offensive, and to pursue the terrorists wherever they train, or sleep, or attempt to set down roots. We have conducted this campaign from the mountains of Afghanistan, to the heart of the Middle East, to the horn of Africa, to the islands of the Philippines, to hidden cells within our own country.

More than three-quarters of al Qaeda's key members and associates have been detained or killed. We know that there is still a danger to America. So we will not relent until the terrorists who plot murder against our people are found and dealt with.

Staying on the "offensive." The reference to where the terrorists "sleep" evokes images of them trembling in bed. "Roots" are for ripping out. And of course, the first sentence of the paragraph that ends with "dealth with" has the word "killed." Now, here's Kerry:

I know that for those who lost loved ones that day, the past three years have been almost unbearable. Their courage and faith have been tested in a way they never imagined. But day after day, they have held on. And day after day, they and we have found hope and comfort and strength by the quiet grace of God.

We are one America in our prayers for those who were taken from us on September 11th and for their families. And we are one America in our unbending determination to defend our country — to find and get the terrorists before they get us.

Loss, pain, holding on through "quiet grace." Courage is the daily struggle to go on living. Bush is on the offensive; Kerry is determined to play defense, separating the aggressive method of that defense with an em-dash — a tagged-on subordinate clause. Note, too, whom Kerry disguises in the passive voice: whoever it was who took our loved ones away.

To Bush, the terrorists are an active enemy, requiring an active response. From the above two paragraphs and his overall image, we can tell that we — the United States — are going to pursue those who would murder us as we go about our lives wherever it might be that they slither to hide. Against that background, his use of the passive voice is a discreet turn of phrase, a sly smile reassuring us that we can trust in what's going on behind the necessarily vague public statement. "Don't you worry. They're, ahem, being dealt with."

To Kerry, the United States is acted upon passively, and given the above two paragraphs and his overall image, we have ample reason to fear that his leadership would act passively upon those faceless actors.

Posted by Justin Katz at September 11, 2004 1:44 PM
Politics
Comments

Justin,

I think your strong dislike (an understatement, probably) of John Kerry is causing you to make distinctions beyond what is rational. I can only imagine what you'd be writing if Howard Dean were the Democrats' nominee.

Posted by: Joel Thomas at September 15, 2004 12:10 AM

And here I was thinking it was his strong like for President Bush that was the incentive for this thread. Of course you are entitled to your opinion. I, on the other hand, thought his analysis was quite rational and without rancor.

Plus, we all know that THK would have bought the primary no matter who the opponent was. (Okay, that was tossing a bomb, but I don't care. I voted for Bush in 2000, and that is who I had been planning on voting for again this year no matter which Dem bought the primary. I just wish he had gotten around to finishing the Gulf War sooner.)

Posted by: smmtheory at September 18, 2004 2:07 PM