“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” [1]

On August 17, 1998, President Bill Clinton was deposed during a grand jury inquest as to whether he had sexual relations with a White House intern and attempted to cover it up. During the president’s testimony he was ask to clarify what “is sexual relations?” His answer is classic Humpty Dumpty: “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

I’ve argued about the importance of language elsewhere, but I bring up Humpty Dumpty and Bill Clinton because they illustrate the postmodern notion that we can say whatever we want and mean something completely different. This happened in the October 16, 2012, town hall debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

During the debate the president claimed on the day after the death of four American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya—including our ambassador—that he said, and we need to get the language correct here, their deaths were the result of “an act of terror.” Governor Romney followed up to clarify the president’s statement that indeed the deaths of our diplomats was “an act of terror.” To which Candy Crowley, the moderator, interjected that that is what the president said.

But was it? Not exactly. Here’s what the president said on September 12, 2012, in context:

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 (emphasis mine). [2]

“No acts”—plural—“of terror . . .” The “s” is important because it references terrorism in the general not in the particular. And what happened to the four Americans in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, was particular not general. So the president was wrong in the particular—he didn’t call the death of our diplomats an act of terror. And no amount of “that’s what I’m meant” will make it mean what he said.

But I can hear some of my readers laughing like Biden and claiming foul—that the partisan author protests too much. Fair enough, for the sake of argument I’ll concede that the meaning of “is” is defense is beside the point. Let’s take the president’s claim at face value—that he really did call the Benghazi attack an act of terror. In that case, I have some questions about what he did, what he said, and what he didn’t say after this terrorist attack.

What Obama Did

Mr. President, if on September 12, 2012, you attributed the deaths of our four diplomats to terrorism why then did you not stay at the White House to monitor events on the ground in Benghazi? Why did you go to Las Vegas for a campaign fundraiser?

Why did you not confer with your national security team, as well as Secretary of State Clinton and her team, about what should be done next?

Why did you not immediate call in a battle group and put boots on the ground to secure the consulate and begin the investigation to find the terrorists? Or why did you not call in an immediate drone strike on a known terrorist safe house?

What Obama Said

Mr. President, if indeed the Benghazi attack was an act of terror, as you claimed it was on the day after, why then did you appear on The View, David Letterman, Univision, and at the United Nations and blame the attack on an unflattering video of Mohammad?

What Obama Didn’t Say

Mr. President, if four Americans died at the hands of terrorist, which you said was the case during your Rose Garden remarks, why then did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and Press Secretary Jay Carney say the deaths were a result of mob violence whipped up by the anti-Mohammad video?

You said in your town hall debate with Governor Romney that the Secretary of State, the UN Ambassador, and the four dead diplomats were “your folks.” Why then did you allow your folks to directly contradict your Rose Garden statement about the death of your other folks, and do so repeatedly without retraction or clarification of their contradiction?

In other words, Mr. President, why didn’t you say something to “your folks” and to the American people to get the story straight—that the Benghazi attack was “an act of terror”?

These seem to be reasonable questions. And I’d be surprised if they don’t come up during the foreign policy debate next week.

But let me close with this: for a people incapable of discerning truth from error the question isn’t whether we can make words—or parts of words—mean so many things, but which is to be master—the truth or the lie.

[1] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, in The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition (New York: Norton, 2000), 213.

[2] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Deaths of U.S. Embassy Staff in Libya,” Rose Garden, White House, September 12, 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/09/12/remarks-president-deaths-us-embassy-staff-libya (accessed October 17, 2012).

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2 Responses to Which Is to be Master?

  1. Stephanie C. says:

    Well said, Derrick. Well said. I agree. These are
    important questions that I hope will be asked or
    brought to the table on the next debate. I also wish
    it were illegal for a “moderator” to choose sides,
    as she so clearly did Tuesday night. I would love
    to have you run for office! I’d vote for you! *^_~*

    • Thanks for the comment, Steph.

      Yes, Candy inserted herself as the second person Romney had to debate. I thought that was true of Martha Raddatz as well in the VP debate. Such is the nature of modern politics if you’re a Republican and main stream journalists are selected to moderate presidential debates.

      Thank you for your vote. I’m not sure I’d get more than one or two, even if I was running for dog catcher.

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