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Linguist Geoff Nunberg

Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers how the September 11th attacks and the aftermath have affected the way we talk.


Other segments from the episode on February 18, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 18, 2001: Interview with Michael Gordon; Commentary on speech; Commentary by Billy Collins.


DATE October 18, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: New York Times military correspondent Michael Gordon
discusses US military campaign in Afghanistan

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is the military correspondent for The New York Times, Michael
We invited him to talk about the military campaign in Afghanistan and the
difficulties in reporting on this new war. Michael Gordon is The Times'
former Moscow bureau chief. He's covered the Gulf War and the conflicts in
Chechnya and Kosovo. We spoke earlier today.

Before the bombing campaign started, we were told that there were very few
real targets in Afghanistan, yet we've been bombing for over a week and a
half. What's your understanding of the bombing strategy?

Mr. MICHAEL GORDON (Military Correspondent, The New York Times): I think
that the United States, and this is almost entirely an American operation at
this point in time, is engaged in a classic air campaign. It's the same
of air campaign that I covered during the Iraq war and during the war in
Kosovo. And in this campaign, the first thing you do is knock out the
air defenses to achieve a measure of air superiority. Then you go after his
so-called command and control targets. And in this case it also includes
efforts to try to bomb the Taliban leadership itself and go after his forces
in the field. But I think this classic air campaign is married to a very
unorthodox use of ground forces, which heavily emphasize Special Operations
Forces. The second phase hasn't yet unfolded, but I think it will begin

GROSS: How shortly are you thinking?

Mr. GORDON: I really have no idea, but there's an aircraft carrier not far
from Pakistan which has no airplanes on it. Instead what it has is
helicopters and Army Special Operations troops. And the concept is that
they'll stage through Pakistan, meaning they'll move into bases in Pakistan,
not be there for a long period of time, en route to Afghanistan.

GROSS: How much information do you expect to be getting from the Pentagon
what the Special Operations are doing?

Mr. GORDON: Well, we're not getting very much on what the conventional
forces are doing. This is a very difficult war to cover for a variety of
reasons. First off, we don't have reporters in Taliban-held areas of
Afghanistan, we being The New York Times, nor do virtually all Western news
organizations, although there's some stringers there for the wire services.
So we don't see firsthand what's happening in the country. Second off, some
of these operations are being launched from so-called coalition partners,
which are not enthusiastic about revealing their degree of cooperation with
the United States, for example AC-130 gunships, which are these Air Force
Special Operations gunships, are based in Oman. They fly over Afghanistan
attack their targets near Kandahar. But this is nowhere officially
acknowledged and there are no reporters in Oman to document this. Thirdly,
the Pentagon briefings have not been particularly good. They're sort of
bones and not as good as they were during the Gulf War. And that reflects
current, I think, sort of attitude on a number of factors, but it reflects
attitude about the Pentagon leadership that is very uncomfortable with
providing too much information. There are some legitimate security concerns
there, but it's also an attitude, I think, about the media generally.

There's another way into it a little bit. The British are an important
In fact, they're the only military ally at this point in time. They don't
play much of a role in the air campaign, but they will play a substantial
in the ground operation. They've been much more candid about what they're
planning on doing and the factors that are influencing their planning,
including weather.

GROSS: What are they saying that the Pentagon isn't?

Mr. GORDON: Well, they talk rather openly about coming ground operations.
They don't give the specific details, but they discuss the weather as a
factor, whether it's better to launch this operation before the winter or
after the winter. They were the first to reveal the total number of targets
struck, which is now over 60. My source for that is the British military.
couldn't get that from the Pentagon. And they also were the first to give
they consider to be a realistic time frame for the operation, which is--I
think it was last week they said they were looking in spring, summer and
even beyond.

GROSS: In today's Times report that there are no indications that there are
large numbers of US ground troops that will be deployed, what clues are you
looking for to evaluate what the likelihood of a lot of US ground troops
deployed will be?

Mr. GORDON: Well, I don't know how many ground forces are going to be
deployed, quite honestly, but Pentagon officials have indicated that they do
not intend to deploy a massive number of ground forces, and there is zero
desire to repeat the mistakes of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the
subsequent occupation where you have thousands and thousands of troops tied
down and trying to occupy a country which doesn't welcome a foreign
So there's no interest in doing that.

Basically, the Pentagon wants to get control of the air, knock out the
army as much as possible from the air, conduct air raids to essentially
fragment the Taliban, overthrow Mullah Omar and hunt for bin Laden and get
out. They're not looking to get tied down in an occupation of Afghanistan.
It's not militarily desirable and it's not politically desirable because the
politics of that vis-a-vis the Islamic world are not good. And President
has spoken to this and said that the administration has learned a lesson
observing what the Soviets did in Afghanistan. He hasn't spelled it out,
this is the lesson that they've learned.

GROSS: How much do you think we're relying, or are going to rely on
Alliance troops?

Mr. GORDON: I think the Bush administration is very conflicted on this
point. The Northern Alliance is an anti-Taliban group that's dominated by
Uzbeks and Tajiks by ethnicity. The dominant ethnic group in the country
Pashtuns. That's the group that gave rise to the Taliban. It's also the
group from which the exiled king comes. Exiled king is a figure that may
a role in a post-Taliban regime to unite different groups. So the dilemma
that the Northern Alliance is really the only fighting force on the ground
that could be allied with the United States. It's a group but it has
different factions. And so they're the only fighting force that's willing
fight alongside us, so to speak, in Afghanistan at this point in time
so far the CIA hasn't been able to mobilize any resistance in the south.
That's on the plus side.

On the negative side, they're not representative of the entire population
there's a rather bitter relationship between the Northern Alliance and
Pakistan, which is a key coalition partner in a staging ground for some of
military operations. So what you have is Secretary Rumsfeld emphasizing,
especially a few weeks ago, the military potential of the Northern Alliance
and Secretary Colin Powell emphasizing the need to keep things on an even
with Pakistan. And this tension has resulted in a very kind of unclear
relationship with the Northern Alliance. I talk to them every day,
here in Washington, sometimes they're our correspondents in their territory
Afghanistan. And what the United States appears to be doing is carrying out
bombing raids that indirectly aid the Northern Alliance. For example,
hit some targets around this town Mazar-e Sharif, which is a key objective.
They hit the airfield. They've hit some of the Arab troops that bin Laden's
recruited. They've hit some tanks. This indirectly benefits the Northern
Alliance as it weakens the Taliban in that area. What they're not doing, so
far, is hitting the front-line troops that directly oppose the Northern
Alliance or closely coordinating with the Northern Alliance.

GROSS: Why aren't they hitting those front-line Taliban troops?

Mr. GORDON: Why aren't they?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GORDON: Well, because I think for a number of--I'm not excluding that
could happen. But I think one reason is how some of those front-line troops
protect the approaches to Kabul or the path to Kabul, and the United States
does not want the Northern Alliance to enter Kabul at this point in time for
all the political reasons. The fear is that the Pashtuns and the rest of
country, far from welcoming the Northern Alliance, would rally around the
Taliban because of the ethnic backing. The fear also is that Pakistan would
object, which it has publicly already. And I think the US wants to help the
Northern Alliance without being perceived as being too closely connected to
them. So it's trying to do it in an indirect way. That's the dilemma.

This is not like Kosovo. I covered that war. I was even in an airborne
command post when the US was doing bombing raids toward the end of that
conflict. And the KLA, Kosovo Liberation Army, the Albanian group, would
carry on attacks against the Serbs. The Serbs would come out to fight them
and the US would call in air strikes on the Serbs. We basically functioned
a sort of close air support for the KLA at the very end. There's nothing in
this conflict that remotely resembles that in the amount of coordination,
largely for political reasons.

GROSS: You reported recently that our military strategy in Afghanistan has
outpaced our political strategy. And so if the Taliban give up, we don't
a plan in place yet. I guess this relates to what you were just talking
about, about not bombing the Taliban ground troops. But can you talk a
bit more about how our military strategy seems to have outpaced our

Mr. GORDON: Yeah, I mean, it's just a lot easier to destroy something than
create something. And what's happening now is the air campaign has--they
finding things to attack and weakening the Taliban and going after their
even though they're not doing everything the Northern Alliance would like,
there's no agreement yet on the nature of the regime that would replace the
Taliban. There's--the Northern Alliance is one element of it. The Pashtuns
associated with the king are another potential element of it; so-called
moderate Taliban, if indeed they exist, may be a third element of it. And
these groups, number one, are not working together in any real way at this
point in time. It's not clear what this new regime would look like. It's
rather complicated by the fact that Pakistan wants to maintain its influence
in Afghanistan and the Northern Alliance is very much opposed to that.

And the American effort, even though President Bush keeps saying we're
to help our--these friendly forces on the ground, the covert effort to help
these groups seems to be proceeding very slowly for reasons that are hard
me to determine from here, but so far, you know, arms have not been pouring
into these groups. It's been hard to recruit these groups.

So the point of that article, which I think is largely accurate, is that we
may find ourselves in a position where the Taliban are toppled, but
it--there's a power vacuum in Afghanistan, which is undesirable because we
don't want the entire country to dissolve into chaos and into an even more
chaotic situation than it's in now.

GROSS: So do you think that we might actually slow up the military campaign
so that it doesn't outpace our political abilities, our political strategy?

Mr. GORDON: Well, I think one thing they've done is they've tried to
recalibrate the military campaign by not bombing the front-line troops to
allow the Northern Alliance to get into Kabul. There's no agreement on what
government should occupy Kabul, therefore you don't open the door for these
guys to get into Kabul. I think it's affected in that way. And I should
that Secretary Powell and Pakistan has been talking about these issues,
forming a government. But the danger in slowing up the military campaign,
you lose momentum and if you're going to insert your own ground forces, you
really have to maintain a full-court press and keep the heat on. If you let
up, you're losing the momentum. You're giving the enemy a little bit of a
breather. You're making things harder for American and British forces when
they do carry out their special operations. It's a very complicated war
which involves juggling not only military factors and considerations about
weather and terrain, but a lot of political factors.

There are different coalitions. There's the coalition within
so-called internal coalition--the Northern Alliance and whatever Pashtun's
can get to join our side. Then there's a political coalition in this--among
the surrounding states, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Oman. And then there's a
military coalition, which so far is just the United States and Britain. So
there are really three separate coalitions involved in this campaign and the
administration has to juggle all of them.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Gordon, military correspondent for The New York
Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Michael Gordon is my guest, military correspondent for The New York

How much of this terrorist threat that we're facing now do you think is
blow-back from the Gulf War?

Mr. GORDON: It's hard to say. I mean, I have no idea what motivates
like bin Laden. I mean, people say that he was grieved when he saw that
there were American troops in Saudi Arabia and--which his own country had
invited in to defend his own country against Saddam Hussein. I think it's
more general than that. I think there's enormous resentment in the Arab
world about American support for Israel. And I think, also, there's just a
lot of resentment. It's not only the only superpower in the world, it's
culture is--popular culture, anyway, is spreading around the world and
jeopardizing the traditions of some of these societies. So I think it's
deeper than that and I don't think it's going to go away. And I don't think
that an American victory in Afghanistan is going to put an end to it.

It's very difficult to get terrorists. You don't know where they hide. And
they may be a little bit irrational. They're willing to fight to the
They're willing to give their own lives. How do you stop these kinds of
people? But the governments, they give them shelter and give them support.
They can't hide. They have capitals and armies and radio towers and

compounds. They can't hide and they're more pragmatic. They generally
want to give up their lives. They want to stay in power and perpetuate
power. So a good point of leverage on the terrorists is to go after the
regime that gives them aid and comfort, which, indeed, is the strategy here.
And I think it's a sensible strategy. I think it's really about the only
thing you can do. And I think that it will be instructive if the United
States topples the Taliban regime. It will be a message to other nations
if you give some comfort and shelter and support to terrorists who attack
United States, there's a huge price to pay. Maybe it will be political
coercion, maybe it will be a covert CIA operation against you, maybe it will
be a military strike, but you probably don't want to do this if you want to
stay in power. I think that's a useful message to send.

And the same time, I don't expect this to end the terrorist threat to the
United States and I think it will also be a whole--a lot of people in the
Islamic world will be very angry about what the United States has done in
Afghanistan and will plot new attacks.

GROSS: How has The Pentagon been handling its mistakes, like the accidental
bombing of a residential neighborhood in Afghanistan and the accidental
bombing of a Red Cross supply warehouse?

Mr. GORDON: Well, not too badly in the sense that they--these sort of
mistakes are really an inevitable part of warfare. They happen in every
conflict. They can't really be avoided. If you think they can be avoided,
you're kidding yourself. It's just part of what comes when you unleash the
dogs of war, so to speak. And I think they've been--they're making every
effort to avoid them because there's certainly no desire to hurt civilians.
And, also, the politics of it are very bad. This all gets on Al-Jazeera and
leads to demonstrations in Pakistan and--where we want to put some troops
creates all sorts of problems in the Islamic world. So they're certainly
trying to avoid them.

In fact, on Friday they did--I wouldn't call it a pause, but on Friday,
is the Muslim Sabbath, they really did hold down some of the bombing raids
out of respect for that. That's something they didn't do, by the way,
the Gulf War. And then no sooner did they resume than they accidently sent
missile into a residence and killed a few people. So I can assure you there
was no interest in doing that. It undercut the whole point of observing the
Muslim Sabbath. But I think they've been reasonably up front about
disclosing them and acknowledging them and accepting responsibility for them
and just saying it's the price of doing business when you have a war.

GROSS: What about the food that we've been dropping? We've been dropping
food to help people in Afghanistan and also as a public relations campaign
show that we're not against the people. We're just against terrorism. Do
you think it's been effective. Do you have a reading on that?

Mr. GORDON: I don't think the Pentagon, itself, believes that it's that
effective. Certainly, it has some benefit, but the real way to get food
the country is by land conveys. The Pentagon will be the first to
that, so they describe what they're doing as sort of a supplement, not the
principal way of helping people. I think there is an obvious political
dimension to it, which is the administration wanted to be able to say from
very beginning that it wasn't merely bombing targets in Afghanistan, but
helping people there. In fact, sometimes they've carried the spin a little
bit too far and I've heard military pilots interviewed on television that
the reason we're bombing the air defenses is so that we could deliver food,
but it's of some modest benefit. But the principal way to get the food in
on the ground, which is an effort that's now under way through Iran, from
Pakistan, from the north involving mules and all sorts of stuff. I'm not
world's greatest expert on that, but that's the way to really help the

GROSS: Michael Gordon is the military correspondent for The New York Times.
He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Michael Gordon,
correspondent for The New York Times.

And linguist Geoff Nunberg considers how terrorism is affecting the way we
talk now.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of our interview
with Michael Gordon, military correspondent for The New York Times. He's
covering the new war against terrorism, he's The Times' former Moscow bureau
chief. He covered the conflicts in Chechnya and Kosovo as well as the Gulf
War. We spoke earlier today.

I'm wondering how the Cheney and Powell that you're seeing now compare to
Cheney and Powell that you covered during the Gulf War?

Mr. GORDON: I think they're the same people. I think that the war minister
for the US government is Cheney. They keep him out of wraps because they
don't want him to overshadow the president. I think they even had him in a
bunker somewhere in West Virginia, because they said the president and the
vice president couldn't be together for security reasons. But as best I can
figure, Cheney really is the key figure behind the scenes or certainly is
key than anybody else. And I think that he's a pragmatic person with
hard-line instincts. It was Cheney who advised Don Rumsfeld to go to the
Middle East prior to the air strikes. Rumsfeld, strangely enough, had not
even been to visit the Persian Gulf states. And here we're about to start a
war in South Asia, which depended to a certain extent on their cooperation,
and there was no high-level Pentagon contact with them, at least not person
person. Cheney understood that because he had done that himself in the Gulf

I think Powell's instincts are pretty much the same as they were during the
Gulf War. Powell is also pragmatic, but he tends to be cautious. And I
Powell's instincts, for example, are to keep the relationship with Pakistan
steady, more they are than to aid the Northern Alliance. I think Powell,
unlike Rumsfeld, was initially more uncomfortable to talk about toppling the
Taliban regime; indeed, he still talks about working with moderate members
the Taliban regime. And I think Powell is very much against this notion of
extending this war against Afghanistan to involve military conflicts against
terrorist groups in other nations.

GROSS: What are some of the problems Powell sees with extending the
to other countries?

Mr. GORDON: Well, there's an obvious short-term problem, which is that the
coalition the US has assembled is a delicate one. I mean, remember, this is
an administration that was essentially unilaterist when it took power,
put lot of stock on multinational diplomacy, multilateral diplomacy, and yet
found itself in the position of having to construct marriages of convenience

And if the United States were to extend its war aims beyond Afghanistan,
say to include Iraq; which, by the way, so far has not been linked to any of
terrorism, although I don't know how this anthrax investigation may affect
that determination--but if the US expanded it, it would be very difficult to
hold together the coalition that it does have. The British, for example,
lone military allies so far in this, have made it clear that they're in this
for the Afghanistan conflict. They're not in it for Iraq. So that's a
practical reason for doing it. So I think from Powell's perspective what he
would like is to achieve the US aims in this war and then go back to more of
the traditional instruments for fighting terrorism--economic sanctions,
political pressure, high-level diplomacy, but not bombing strikes.

I think the Pentagon, at least civilian leadership, maybe not the military,
looks at it a little bit differently. And they see counterterrorism as sort
of the rationale now for the Pentagon in the 21st century. Basically the
against terrorism is an organizing principle now for defense, much as
containing Soviet power was during the Cold War. And so just because you
finish up with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan doesn't mean you wouldn't want to
thinking about how to go after al-Qaeda networks in other countries or other
terrorist groups. They look at it, from their vantage point, fighting
terrorism why not take on some of these other groups that have been linked
the deaths of Americans and are plotting things against us, even if it
some political problems.

And you get a taste of this in what Rumsfeld says when he says that the
coalition shouldn't determine the mission; the mission should determine the
coalition. That seems to imply look, if we want to go after a group, we
together a coalition and go after that group. If we look at another group,
pull together a coalition. Maybe we don't even have a coalition, if no one
will go with us, but maybe that shouldn't deter us. So these are very, very
different perspectives. The Bush administration has not resolved this
This debate goes on today within the administration. Essentially what they
did is they punted. They said Afghanistan will be phase one and then we'll
deal with phase two later. They just didn't say how.

GROSS: Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
were both called warriors. Now they're forming alliances with Russia and
former Soviet republics like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. You must often
what's going through their minds as they participate in these new alliances
with places that used to be their enemies.

Mr. GORDON: I don't think these alliances go very deep...

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. GORDON: this point in time. I think they're marriages of
convenience. I think that the Bush administration's position on Russia has
been very interesting. It's been a bit of a flip-flop. During the
candidate Bush was pretty critical of the Russians and just before he took
office and immediately afterward, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, others, Condi Rice
accused the Russians of selling dangerous technologies all around the world,
and basically said one reason we have to build a missile defense, even
you don't like it, is because you guys have been selling too much missile
technology to countries like Iran, which refused to talk to Putin for some
period of time.

The Russians kept trying to arrange a telephone call, a meeting, anything,
the White House essentially dissed them and said that you're in the bottom
our list of things to do today, thank you very much. We're going to Mexico
first and Canada. Do we even talk about Mexico and Canada in a serious way
now? Those are our main allies because they're geographically close, and
been there before. And then we're going to meet with the Japanese. And
sort of had a concept of concentric circles. First, you do North America,
then you do your allies, then you get around to China and Russia. That
to change because of the missile defense debate.

The Europeans became very anxious that missile defense would upset the
Russians and lead to a new confrontation. So what the administration did at
that point was they made a display of engaging with the Russians--I call it
conspicuous engagement--to try to persuade the Europeans that you can have
your cake and eat it too; we could do missile defense and not upset things
with the Russians. And they not only started returning Putin's phone calls,
but they acted as if they were the best of friends. The current conflict
extended that trend because we do need some Russian cooperation--not a lot,
but a little bit--primarily because the US military wants to operate out of
Central Asia. And even though Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are former Soviet
states and independent, it is an area of Russian influence.

Now what's the payoff for the Russians? Well, part of it is the
administration changed their tune on Chechnya of all things, having
that as a, you know, grievous human rights situation. Now they're sound
more sympathetic about it. They still criticize the indiscriminate use of
force, but they suggest that Russia is, at least in part, battling
so they gave the Russians a little more support there. I don't expect it to
affect the administration's push for missile defense. And I think it
to be seen whether this measure of cooperation with Moscow leads to anything
that approaches a strategic partnership, because that certainly doesn't
at this point in time. The relationship with Russia is such that we're
definitely enemies, but we're not full-fledged partners either. We're sort
something in between.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Gordon, military correspondent for The New York
Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Michael Gordon, military correspondent for The New York

In the alliances that we're forming now, are we giving arms to countries,
high-grade arms and weapons that may some day be used against us?

Mr. GORDON: I don't think so. I mean, the United States and Britain are
doing the bombing. The Northern Alliance has weapons. I don't think
a shortage of weapons in the region. I'm not quite sure what we're doing
the Northern Alliance, but I would guess that we're supplying them with
and they're going to go buy arms from the Russians, instead of us shipping
them there, which is what--they've been buying arms from the Russians for
years, mostly using Iranian money.

But we are suffering a little bit from some of the previous American covert
operations in the region. For example, the Taliban are armed with Stingers,
which is an anti-aircraft missile which is not a threat to our current
aircraft really, but it's a potential threat to helicopter operations and
slow-flying aircraft, once the second phase of this conflict begins. Well,
how did the Stingers get there? We gave them to them--not to the Taliban,
to the mujaheddin, so that they could use them against the Soviets during
war with Afghanistan. And then the CIA went around trying to buy them all
back and, well, lo and behold, some of these people decided they'd hang onto
them, thank you very much. So, you know, that's a little bit of annoyance,
but I don't see a similar trend in this conflict.

GROSS: I want to get back to Cheney and Powell. Are there certain mistakes
you think Cheney and Powell saw in the Gulf War that they're really trying
not make this time around?

Mr. GORDON: Cheney and Powell didn't agree about the Gulf War. Cheney
wanted to go to war against Iraq and Powell didn't, so it wasn't they were
always of one mind in that conflict. I think that was a very different type
of conflict. First of all, you were fighting a very traditional army that
lots of tanks and it had invaded a country, Kuwait. And then the country
to it, Saudi Arabia, was anxious, and so they were happy to take in American
forces and let us use their nation essentially as a big aircraft carrier to
launch our strikes. It's a very different type of conflict from this, in
which you're fighting this Taliban ragtag army, whatever it is, of 20,000 to
40,000 guys and a bunch of 2,000 to 3,000 terrorists who are hard to root

But I think if there was one lesson of the Gulf War--I don't think Cheney
Powell would necessarily agree with this, by the way, but I think if there
a lesson, it's that it's better not to leave certain things undone. And in
the Gulf conflict, the war aims were limited to weakening Saddam Hussein and
recovering Kuwait and reducing his military potential so that he couldn't
reinvade Kuwait, but they didn't really extend to overthrowing his regime.
That was in the category of nice to have, but not essential. I don't want
reargue that issue, but I think in this case they don't want to repeat that
scenario. They want to definitely root out the al-Qaeda network from
Afghanistan at a minimum and decapitate the Taliban regime, which is why the
conflict is a little bit open-ended. They don't want to just punish them or
fire off a bunch of cruise missiles and hurt them and leave them standing
there. So this is much more a fight to the finish than the Gulf conflict

GROSS: Michael Gordon, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. GORDON: Thank you.

GROSS: Michael Gordon is the military correspondent for The New York Times.
Our interview was recorded earlier today.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Changes in American speech after September 11

Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, is always listening to America talking. Here's
some of the changes he's noticed since September 11th.


The day major-league baseball resumed play after the attacks, I was watching
the Giants game on TV as Mike Krukow(ph) described the replay of a monster
homer that Andres Galarraga had hit into the center field bleachers. `Boy,'
he said, `he really kil--he really hit that one good.' We're all watching
language these days as we're suddenly made aware of how our speech is
with violent metaphors. Actually, I first put that as `shot through with
metaphors' and then thought better of it. New products have ceased to bomb,
dot-com companies no longer crash and burn, and people are suddenly sheepish
about yelling `bloody murder' when their newspaper's late. You may catch
flack on that. We'll see what happens after the dust clears. I'd never
so many people ending their sentences with `so to speak.' It's as if we
trying to purge our speech of any images that might evoke an inadvertent
irony, however far-fetched it might be.

Advertisers are anxiously scanning their copy for anything that might seem
irreverent. Coca-Cola canceled an ad series built around the slogan `Life
Tastes Good,' presumably on the theory that such a thought might suggest a
lack of solemnity. And after the attacks, program directors at the Clear
Channel radio network circulated a list of songs that might be inappropriate
for air play. Some of the recommendations were just common sense. It
wasn't the moment to be playing AC/DC's "Safe in New York City." But a
listener would have to be pretty sensitive and pretty imaginative to be
disconcerted by titles like "Ruby Tuesday" or "Ticket To Ride," not to
The Bangles' "Walk Like An Egyptian." That one was racial profiling in
sense of the term.

For the moment, at least, we seem to have turned into a nation of scrupulous
literalists. Some people see this as the sign of a healthy re-evaluation of
American priorities. Writing in Time magazine a couple of weeks ago, Roger
Rosenblatt proclaimed that the attacks signal the end of the age of irony.
Enough of those intellectuals who hold that nothing is to be believed or
seriously. The enormity of events makes detachment and distance seem a
dangerously empty pose. As Rosenblatt puts it, `The ironists, seeing
everything, made it difficult for anybody to see anything.'

You can hear echoes of that sentiment in the way people have been
the trivialization of language. One reporter told me that she could never
again use hero to describe a sports figure after seeing what the New York
firemen and the passengers on Flight 93 had done. Some of this newfound
circumspection is an honest reaction to the horror of events and the sense
perspective they give us. There's no question the attacks will have some
enduring effects on the way we talk. People will be more hesitant to
every little reversal and contretemps as a tragedy, and it will be a long
before a Microsoft executive will again accuse a competitor of pursuing a
strategy of patent terrorism.

But the new circumspection that some commentators are calling for has a
depressingly familiar sound. When you think back to the tone of the
press before the attacks, what's embarrassing isn't its excessive levity,
its bogus seriousness--all those cable news shows trying to whip the nation
into a weekly frenzy of outrage about oversexed congressmen and overaged
little leaguers. It's not surprising that a lot of commentators have
to the attacks by admonishing everyone about the failure to take life
seriously, but Americans aren't about to turn into dour literalists
particularly now.

These really are unprecedented times, when the president tells us that the
most patriotic thing that most of us can do right now is to get on with our
normal daily lives, but to be on the alert for terrorists at the mall and
anthrax in the mail. It's a demand that leads to an understandable tension
and to a certain amount of guilt. But there's a time-honored adaptive
strategy for dealing with that kind of dissociation. It's called irony.
Think of Brecht and the good soldier Schweik of "Catch-22" and "M*A*S*H," of
war poets from Henry Reed to Randall Jarrell. Irony has always been a
response to the condition of trying to lead a normal life in ominous times.

In a way, irony is the opposite of circumspection. They both begin with a
sense of the moral ambiguity of language, but ironists are diffident about
using words in their banal and frivolous meanings, even as they're aware of
the more auspicious meanings that are always hovering in the background.
a way of seeing things and seeing through them at the same time. This
been a very common mentality in recent years, whatever critics may say. In
fact, real irony has become so rare that people like Rosenblatt seem to have
forgotten what the word actually means. They confuse irony with cynicism

But listening to all those `so to speaks' and `as it weres' that people are
peppering their speech with, I have the sense that we might be entering a
ironic age. In these times, we'd be the better off for it. That thought
struck me a couple of weeks after the attacks, when I was lucky enough to be
at the Giants game in person on the night that Barry Bonds hit his 71st
We all cheered until he came out and took a couple of heroes bows, not that
there was anybody in the park, Bonds included, who weren't conscious of the
other more serious meaning of the word `hero.' Everybody knew that there
something incongruous about getting so excited about a man who happens to be
good at hitting a ball over a fence with a stick. Was that ironic
Sure. But it didn't diminish the immediate thrill.

GROSS: Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg is author of the new book "The Way We Talk
Now: Commentaries on Language and Culture from NPR's Fresh Air." This is

Public Radio is providing you news, analysis, commentary and reflection at a
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Profile: Billy Collins' poem "This Much I Do Remember"

America's new poet laureate, Billy Collins, has joined us a couple of times
since September 11th. Here he is to read another poem, a poem of
in response to terrorism.

Professor BILLY COLLINS (US Poet Laureate): The poems that stand out for me
an adequate response really are poems of affirmation, poems, whether they
contain humor or whether they're poems about love or our respect for the
natural world around us, for our delight in music and food and sunshine.
Those are the poems I think that will continue to be written, and the
obligation of the poet, as Joseph Brodsky said, is basically to the
you know, it's not to a political point or an incident or an event. But if
the poet is responsible to the language and continues this tradition of
affirmation, I think that is sufficient.

There's a poem called--I think of it as a poem of affirmation. It's called
"This Much I Do Remember."

(Reading) `It was after dinner. You were talking to me across the table
something or other, a greyhound you had seen that day or a song you liked,
I was looking past you over your bare shoulder at the three oranges lying on
the kitchen counter next to the small, electric bean grinder, which was also
orange and the orange and white cruets for vinegar and oil, all of which
converged into a random still life so fastened together by the hasp of color
and so fixed behind the animated foreground of your talking and smiling,
gesturing and pouring wine and the camber of your shoulders, that I could
it being painted within me, brushed on the wall of my skull, while the tone
your voice lifted and fell in its flight and the three oranges remained
on the counter, the way stars are said to be fixed in the universe.

Then all the moments of the past began to line up behind that moment, and
the moments to come assembled in front of it in a long row, giving me reason
to believe that this was a moment I had rescued from the millions that rush
out of sight into a darkness behind the eyes. Even after I have forgotten
year it is, my middle name and the meaning of money, I will still carry in
pocket the small coin of that moment minted in the kingdom that we pace
through every day.'

GROSS: Billy Collins is the US poet laureate. His new collection of poems
called "Sailing Alone Around the Room."


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with a recording by jazz singer Etta Jones. She died of cancer
Tuesday at the age of 72. Her death coincided with the release of her new
"Etta Jones Sings Lady Day." This is Etta Jones' 1960 hit, which went gold,
"Don't Go To Strangers."

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ETTA JONES: (Singing) Build your dreams to the stars above, but when
need someone true to love, don't go to strangers. Darling, come on to me.
Play with fire till your fingers burn. And when there's no place for you to
turn, don't go to strangers. Darling, come on to me. For when you hear a
call to follow your heart, you follow your heart, I know. I've been through
it all and I'm an old ham and I'll understand if you go. So make your mark
for your friends to see, but when you need more than company, don't go to
strangers. Come on to me.

Oh, make your mark for your friends to see, but when you need more than
company, don't go to strangers. Darling, come on to me.

Announcer: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LOUDON WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) We said we would keep in touch, but we're
way out of reach.

GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright performs
songs from his new CD, as well as the song he just wrote about New York
September 11th. I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) But today I'm going to call you just to prove
that I
still care, but I'm so afraid your answer...
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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