September 12, 2004

What did Cheney say about Kerry and terrorism?

Did the Vice President, in remarks made at an Iowa campaign appearance, really say that electing John Kerry will cause new terrorist attacks? John Edwards thinks so, and called the comments "unAmerican". The Associated Press thought that was what he was saying too and reported his remarks under the headline "Cheney Warns Against Vote for Kerry". But conservative bloggers think otherwise; see Patterico's Pontifications, for example (Patterico provides all the necessary references to things like the White House transcript). Surely we can decide, with the help of linguistic analysis, given access to accurate transcripts, the simple matter of what was said, can't we?

Well, here's the quote, with the part that AP quoted picked out in boldface. Cheney is saying that the decisions that set up key international security systems after World War II were carried through and supported by both Democrat and Republican administrations, and he goes on:

We're now at that point where we're making that kind of decision for the next 30 or 40 years, and it's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2nd, we make the right choice. Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again, that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States, and that we'll fall back into the pre-9/11 mind set if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts, and that we're not really at war. I think that would be a terrible mistake for us. We have to understand it is a war. It's different than anything we've ever fought before. But they mean to do everything they can to destroy our way of life. They don't agree with our view of the world. They've got an extremist view in terms of their religion. They have no concept or tolerance for religious freedom. They don't believe women ought to have any rights. They've got a fundamentally different view of the world, and they will slaughter -- as they demonstrated on 9/11 -- anybody who stands in their way. So we've got to get it right. We've got to succeed here. We've got to prevail. And that's what is at stake in this election.

Naturally, you trust Language Log to provide a linguistic reading that will sort this out. Did he say what AP (quoting the boldface bit) says he said, or not?

I regret to say that it is extraordinarily hard to rule on this. The argument that he did would be as follows. Suppose an Olympic athlete is facing a decision about whether to go on steroids for a while to boost her performance, even though it's wrong, and her coach says: If you make the wrong choice, then the danger is that you'll get found out in a random drug test, and your medals will be taken away. It would be inconceivable that anyone could doubt that the causal inference, and the warning, was intended: make the wrong choice, they'll find you out and you'll lose your medals. It wouldn't make any difference what he went on to connect this to (depression, remorse, loss of endorsement contracts, poverty, suicide): the warning about the direct consequences is completely clear.

The argument that Cheney did not intend the direct causal inference goes as follows. Read to the end of the passage, and you'll see Cheney is connecting making the wrong choice to the possibility of a future in which the USA returns to treating attacks by terrorists merely in terms of the criminal law, not as justification for foreign military actions. Assume that he gets the bits and pieces slightly muddled up as regards the optimal order, and you can read him as saying something that would have been better phrased like this: If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is of a future in which, when we are hit again (as some day we surely will be, perhaps devastatingly), we will fall back into the pre-9/11 mind set where we take terrorist attacks to be just criminal acts, and not appreciate that we're really at war; and that would be a terrible mistake for us.

In other words, the Cheney defenders say that he was stumbling inexpertly through an argument that relates to the danger that Kerry will treat Islamic terrorism as an internal police issue rather than an issue of global war, and that it would be a terrible mistake for America to deal that way with whatever further terrorist strikes may come.

Perhaps the defense seems a little tortured. Certainly, it is harder to lend it credence in the midst of a furious election campaign. And even if we accept it, the drift does seem to be that there is at least an indirect causal chain: electing Kerry leads to the criminal-law-not-war position on terrorism, and that is perceived as weakness, and weakness draws new terrorist attacks down upon us.

You decide. Language Log is not a political blog and does not advise you on which candidate to vote for (though it may analyze linguistically interesting things that candidates say). The linguistic lesson I draw from looking at this issue is that even given a transcript, it can be astonishingly difficult to decide whether someone asserted a given proposition P or not. One needs to be sensitive to the linguistic possibilities; imaginative concerning what might have been intended; willing to countenance ambiguity and uncertainty; prepared to compare alternative interpretations; and even then, sometimes you have to go back to he source and ask some questions.

My preferred way of working on this would be (if I had the access) to go back to Cheney and ask him, "Did you intend to claim that electing Kerry and Edwards would in a direct way lead to new terrorist attacks that would not have occurred if Bush and you had been elected, or not? Yes, or no?" There's no way to ensure an honest answer, of course; but asking about the speaker's intention is sometimes all you can do, because the raw record of linguistic performance is simply not clear enough. People do sometimes structure their spoken paragraphs poorly and get the cart before the horse.

The cycnic might say, Good luck with getting any politician, let alone one who's in hot water, to respond to a yes/no question with a one-word answer between now and November 2. But in fact we can now learn the results of my thought experiment, because Cheney has given an interview in which he clarified his meaning. He says he did not intend the meaning that AP attributed to him. So that settles that. Now it's back to whether you trust his report of his intention, or you think he's dishonestly backtracking because of the furore. Language Log cannot help you with that.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at September 12, 2004 09:41 PM