Acts of terror: a linguistic angle

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It struck me that there might be an interesting linguistic angle on one of the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your view) of the second presidential debate last Monday night: Candy Crowley fact checking Mitt Romney on the fly and telling him "He [Obama] did in fact, sir," refer to the embassy attack in Libya as an act of "terror" in a Rose Garden speech the day after the event. A brief, non-partisan description of the exchange, and the controversy about it, can be found in this video from comparative journalism site Newsy.com. Conservatives were furious, liberals delighted.

Looking around at the lively blogosphere discussion, I've found two potentially interesting linguistic aspects here:

  • There is a difference between "terror" and "terrorism" (in the diplomatic/international relations world) and Obama did not say "terrorism".
  • Obama used the words "acts of terror" but he was referring to the 9/11 attacks or acts of terror in general, not the Benghazi attack.

On the "terror" vs. "terrorism" distinction, see this 2004 piece by Geoff Nunberg for a fascinating discussion of the shift from the latter to the former in the language of the Bush administration. The Newsy story above also mentions legal implications of the word "terrorism".

The second angle, and the crux of the matter, has to do with what Obama might or might not have been referring to when he used the phrase "acts of terror", and this seems like something about which linguists might have something useful to say. So here's a stab at it.

Here's the relevant snippet of Obama's September 12 speech about Benghazi:

Of course, yesterday was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks. We mourned with the families who were lost on that day. I visited the graves of troops who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hallowed grounds of Arlington Cemetery, and had the opportunity to say thank you and visit some of our wounded warriors at Walter Reed. And then last night, we learned the news of this attack in Benghazi.

As Americans, let us never, ever forget that our freedom is only sustained because there are people who are willing to fight for it, to stand up for it, and in some cases, lay down their lives for it. Our country is only as strong as the character of our people and the service of those both civilian and military who represent us around the globe.

No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.

Now, to begin with, I'm told by reliable sources that some semanticists will get snippy with me if I use the term referring expression in this discussion, and I might be on shaky ground if I even use the words refer or reference. Yes, it's natural in everyday language to ask whether Obama was "referring to" the Benghazi attack when he said "acts of terror", as I did above. But these terms I've italicized have particular meaning to those who study meaning for a living, and I've seen what happens when you make semanticists snippy. So I'm going to stick with the more neutral talk about: was Candy Crowley correct not only that Obama said "acts of terror", which is clear, but also that when he did so he was talking about Benghazi? That is, did he categorize, or describe, the attack in Benghazi as an act of terror?

One possibility is based on the fact that an expression like "No acts of terror…" can be interpreted as talking about salient entities evoked in or by the discourse. (For the linguists: quantifying over such entities.) There are two salient events available two paragraphs earlier: "the 9/11 attacks" and "this attack in Benghazi". Because plural "acts" was used, it would be natural to interpret "no acts of terror" as talking about the set that includes both of those events. Even if you insisted on it referring to just one, I think, recency would favor the Benghazi attack as the referent, not 9/11. Either way, the Benghazi attack is being categorized by the president as an act of terror.

There's also an alternative argument that could be made, that "acts of terror" is not being used to talk about (quantify over) things specifically salient to the discourse at all, but rather all events that could be described as acts of terror, whether they were mentioned in this speech or not. This is the "he was talking about acts of terror in general" argument.

I wouldn't want to rule that out unequivocally in a blog post, but it strikes me as a bit of stretch on linguistic grounds, thanks to what linguists call the Gricean Principle of Relevance. To borrow David Beaver's nicely concise explanation, this principle, which can be seen as a general preference for textual coherence, favors interpretations in which the sentence in question is connected to previous sentences. Of the "9/11 and Benghazi as acts of terror" interpretation and the "acts of terror in general" alternative, the former connects explicitly with the prior discourse and the latter does not; therefore the latter interpretation is disfavored. Consider: if Obama had begun that paragraph with, say, "No natural disasters will ever shake the resolve of this great nation…", listeners would have been struggling to figure out what natural disasters connected with the discourse he could have been talking about.

All this suggests that "No Xs" in that context is most naturally interpreted as talking about salient entities of type X. If the president had said "No thugs with guns will ever shake the resolve…", we would not interpret him as talking about armed thugs in general, including, say urban street gangs in Europe; the natural reading would be that "thugs with guns" meant armed thugs involved in discourse-salient events.

Similarly, suppose I were to write:

Thank you to Sarah Thomason, Mark Liberman, Ben Zimmer, Pranav Anand, David Beaver, and Barbara Partee for their encouragement and insight, though no linguists other than me should be held responsible for this analysis.

It is technically true that I've absolved not only those six linguists, but every other linguist on the face of the planet. But it also seems quite clear that I am talking about those six– and not only that, I'm talking about them as linguists.

Stephen Colbert does a nice job of boiling all this down to a commonsense explanation saying basically the same thing, starting at around 2:20 in this video: "Ok, but 'acts of terror' could refer to anything… I mean, how do we know he's talking about Benghazi, in that Benghazi speech the day after the Benghazi attacks??".

Now, all that said, it is true that the president did create a very large separation between the expression "acts of terror" and the discourse-salient acts. Contrast this, for example, with an alternative phrasing he could have used, like "An act of terror such as this one will never…", which would have unequivocally tagged the Benghazi attack as an act of terror.

My conclusion is that on the linguistic merits, "this attack in Benghazi" was, in fact, characterized by Obama as being in the set, "acts of terror". In plain English, Crowley was right and Obama did, in fact, describe the attack in the Rose Garden speech as an act of terror.

But at the same time, his speech was undeniably very, very carefully crafted. If this attack had turned out not to be an act of terror, nobody could ever wave the transcript in front of the cameras accusing him of having gotten it wrong. At least, not without consulting their friendly neighborhood linguist.

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