August 14, 2006

More on "Israelis Killed, Lebanese Die"

There is an additional point to make about the fact that a newspaper headline says that Israelis were killed but that Lebanese died. The difference in choice of words may reflect the the fact that the Israelis were intentionally murdered while the Lebanese were killed accidentally. Hezbollah does not restrict itself to targetting legitimate military objectives - it is just as happy to kill civilians as to kill soldiers or destroy military installations and equipment. This is in line with its policy, which is genocide. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in a commencement speech said: "if they [Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide." (The Daily Star, October 23, 2002). In contrast, Israel is targetting legitimate military objectives: rocket launchers, headquarters, and means of transportation. It is not targetting civilians, and indeed is taking measures to avoid civilian casualties, such as dropping leaflets in advance warning civilians to evacute the area.

That deaths are due to collateral damage rather than intent is not much consolation to the dead and to those they leave behind, but the difference is signficant morally and legally, and it is a difference that has a linguistic reflex. The use of the passive "be killed" presupposes the existence of an agent or instrument and thus raises in our minds the possibility that the event was the intended result of an agent's volitional action. The use of a basic intransitive like "died" does not presuppose any agent.

Consider the headlines "Rapist dies", "Rapist killed", "Rapist executed", and "Rapist murdered". "Rapist executed" and "Rapist murdered" indicate that the rapist was intentionally killed. They differ in that one treats the kiling as lawful, the other as unlawful. "Rapist dies" and "Rapist killed" could both be used to describe either an intentional killing or an accident, but I think that there are subtle differences in which seems more appropriate in which circumstances. If the rapist is murdered by another inmate, for example, "Rapist killed" seems more apporiate, whereas if the rapist dies from inadvertently eating a bit of peanut butter, to which he is allergic, "Rapist dies (of fatal allergic reaction)" seems more appropriate. "Rapist dies in exercise yard brawl" suggests that his death was an accident in the sense that the fighting just got out of hand, while "Rapist killed during exercise yard brawl" suggests that the rapist was intentionally killed by someone using the brawl as cover.

Such nuances are often subtle and they aren't easy to study objectively in part because there isn't a clearcut difference in acceptability between the alternatives, but I think that they are there, and they, together with the facts of what is happening in the Middle East, very likely explain the choice of wording in the headlines.


Reader Alex McGee points out another couple of factors that may have affected the choice of wording of the headline. One is that editors will avoid repeating the same term to avoid monotony. The other is that headlines are subject to severe length restrictions, which may override accuracy. In this particular case I suspect that the linguistic factors I mentioned are at work, in part because the headline is fairly easily reformulated to use only a single verb if one wants to avoid monotony and keep it short, e.g. "M Israelis, N Lebanese killed", but it is certainly true that these are relevant factors and that they may often suffice to explain what seem to be curious headlines.

One reader seems to think that my use of a rapist in examples was intended to suggest that Hizbollah are rapists. That is not the case. I just needed something that would be natural in a sentence about execution. The fact that the word "rapist" appears in the same post as discussion of Hizbollah doesn't associate one with the other. If you wish, replace "rapist" with "killer" or "prisoner" or "John Doe". Hizbollah are murderous bigots but to my knowledge they are not particularly prone to rape. (Indeed, Hizbollah actually seem to hold relatively progressive views on the status of women, in comparison, e.g., to the Taliban.) Furthermore, why would anyone think that it is Hizbollah who are implicitly tarred as rapists and not the Israelis? Nothing in the passage suggests an association with one rather than the other. The association is in your mind, not my text. Food for thought, eh?

Other readers have political objections to my description of the situation in the Middle East. I don't want to go into the politics in detail since this is about language, and actually, it doesn't matter, as far as explaining the headline is concerned, whether I am right or wrong. What matters is that I am far from alone in this perception and that it is quite possible that the author of the headline shares it.

Some objections aren't actually to what I wrote but to what their authors perceive to be my overall stance on the Israel and the Middle East. I'm not going to debate you on this because I didn't say anything about it and it isn't relevant. For the sake of argument, I could stipulate that Israel is scum, the Palestianians the most horribly wronged people in history, and fundamentalist Islam the best thing since sliced bread and it would make no difference to my linguistic point. The only relevant aspect of the political situation, and the only one I said anything about, is whether the two sides intend civilian deaths.

A few people complain that I shouldn't raise political issues in a language blog. Normally, I don't, but sometimes there is an unavoidable connection. When the question is what underlies a headline about current events and whether it reflects political attitudes, political issues are likely to be relevant, aren't they?

In any case, it seems to me that the above description of the situation is indisputable. Reasonable people can differ in their evaluation of how good a job Israel has done of minimizing civilian casualties and where the tradeoff should be between attaining military objectives and causing collateral damage, but that Israel is aiming at military targets and not purposely killing civilians is crystal clear. Does anyone honestly think that if a force with the resources and reputation of the IDF were targetting civilians the casualties would be in the hundreds, as they are, rather than the tens if not hundreds of thousands? If Israel is attempting to kill civilians, it's the most incompetant attempt in history.

The objections to the characterization of Hizbollah as genocidal are insubstantial. They don't dispute the fact that Hizbollah targets civilians both with their rockets and their suicide bombers, and they don't dispute the explicit statements of policy such as the one cited above. At best, you can argue that Hizbollah doesn't mean what it says and isn't truly genocidal. That Hizbollah targets civilians is as far as I can see beyond dispute. A small minority have real points to make about the interpretation of Hizbollah's genocidal statements, but mostly the objections come from people who just aren't comfortable with the fact that their political beliefs conflict with reality. My advice is: when the facts conflict with your beliefs, change your beliefs. That is equally good advice in politics and in linguistics.

Posted by Bill Poser at August 14, 2006 11:35 AM