Published:02 July 2005
I belong to that generation of undergraduates who cut their teeth on linguistics. Lancaster University in its second year of existence: Class of '67, if I'm not mistaken - was as innovative as it was a bit odd. "Digs" were on the Morecombe seafront, lectures in a converted chapel, and tutorials in an old linen factory. But the books we studied invariably included the immensely boring Zelig Harris and the stunningly brilliant Noam Chomsky.
Less famous then than now, he it was who introduced me to the "foregrounded element". "Foregrounded" is when someone places words in such an order that a new meaning is attached to them or deliberately leaves out a word that we might expect. The big bad man emphasises the meanness of the man. But the bad big man makes us think of size. "Big" has been "foregrounded". Real linguists won't like the above definition but journalists, I fear, sometimes have to distort in order to make plain.
Presidents too, it seems. Because I did a little linguistic analysis on George W Bush's Fort Bragg address to Americans on 28 June - and came up with some pretty strange results. First, of course, was his use of the words "terrorism" and "terror" 33 times.
More interesting was the way in which he deployed these massed ranks of terrorists. If you divided his speech up into eight parts, "terrorists" or "terror" popped up eight times in the first, eight times in the second, three times in the third, nine in the fourth, two in the fifth, none at all in the sixth, a measly three in the seventh and again none at all in the eighth.
The columns in which "terror" disappeared were full of different clichés. Challenge, a good constitution (an Iraqi one, of course), a chance to vote, a free society, certain truths (I won't insult you by telling you where that was snitched from), defending our freedom, flying the flag, great turning points in the story of freedom, prevail (one of Churchill's favourite words) and no higher call.
Put through Chomsky's machine, Bush's speech begins by frightening the audience to death with terrorism and finishes triumphantly by rousing them to patriotic confidence in their country's future victory.
It wasn't actually a speech at all. It was a movie script, a screenplay. The bad guys are really bad but they're going to get their comeuppance because the good guys are going to win.
Other elements of the Bush speech were, of course, woefully dishonest. It's a bit much for Bush to claim that "terrorists" want to "topple governments" when the only guys who've been doing that - in Afghanistan and Iraq - were, ahem, ahem, the Americans.
There are plenty of references to the evil nature of "the enemy" - tyranny and oppression, remnants, the old order - and a weird new version of the Iraqi-11 September lie. Instead of Saddam's non-existent alliance with al-Qa'ida, we now have the claim from Bush that the Iraqi "terrorists who kill innocent men, women and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens" on 11 September, 2001. Whoops! It's no longer the Saddam regime that was involved in these attacks, it seems; it's now the post-Saddam insurgents who are part of the same gang.
It's strange that for a White House that writes screenplays, the words of Osama bin Laden appear so uninteresting. Whenever Bin Laden speaks, no one bothers to read through his speech. The questions are always: Was it him? Is he alive? Where is he? Never: What did he say?
There are real perils in this. Let me show you why. On 13 February, 2003, Bin Laden's latest audiotape was broadcast by the Arabic satellite channel, al-Jazeera. This, remember, was five weeks beforethe Anglo-American invasion.
In that message, Bin Laden made a statement in which he said that "it is beyond doubt that this crusader war is ... directed against the family of Islam, irrespective of whether the Socialist party and Saddam survive or not ... Despite our belief and our proclamation concerning the infidelity of socialists, in present-day circumstances there is a coincidence of interests between Muslims and socialists in their battles against the Crusaders."
And there you have it. Bin Laden, who hated Saddam - he told me this himself, in person - made a call to his followers to fight alongside an Iraqi force which included Saddam's Iraqi Baathist "Socialists". This was the moment when Iraq's future guerrilla army fused with the future suicide bombers, the message that would create the detonation that would engulf the West in Iraq. And we didn't even notice. The US "experts" waffled about whether Bin Laden was alive - not what he said. For once, Bush got it right - but he was too late. Always, as they say, read the text.