September 13, 2011

Today's Worst Use of the Passive Voice

From a Washington Post staff editorial:

An incident in which five Egyptian guards were killed when Israeli forces pursued terrorists crossing the border helped to trigger the upsurge in tensions with Cairo.

Were killed? Who or what killed them? Did they fall into a pit of vipers? Did God smite the Egyptian guards? Were they, perhaps, swallowed up by the Red Sea? Because, hey, these kinds of things have happened before, right?

Media reporting on the incident informs us that the IDF in fact killed these five Egyptian guards. Israelis and Israeli allies can all surely agree this was a bit of an own goal on the part of the IDF, since Israel and Egypt are in the process of renegotiating the terms of their relationship after the fall of Hosni Mubarak and -- keep your fingers crossed -- the return of democratic politics in Egypt.

The recent events in which Egyptian protesters stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo were shocking. The Egyptian government's failure to protect the embassy of a government with whom it has full diplomatic relations was unforgivable. And, as the editorial points out, the way in which Arab regimes deflect attention away from their own problems toward Israel is both pathetic and habitual. But does it actually serve any useful purpose to pretend our Israeli friends are just passive by-standers to what is taking place in the Middle East? Sometimes, in their efforts to counter terrorism, Israel is its own worst enemy.

The tactical and operational decisions of Israeli commanders often have negative strategic effects or are taken in a strategic vacuum. Surely we can and should just admit this, right, and help our Israeli friends to realize this as well? 

Update: Here is the original Washington Post report on the incident, which followed an attack that killed eight Israelis. Note how, in the original report, the murder of Israelis is described in the active voice, whereas the killing of Egyptians is, again, described in the passive voice.

The Egyptian government had demanded an Israeli apology for and joint investigation into the border skirmish, in which an Egyptian military officer and two policemen were killed. It had also criticized statements by Israeli officials about Egypt after the attack in southern Israel, which killed eight people.

When Arabs kill Israelis, the reader can understand their frustration and anger because agency is established. By contrast, since Arabs are killed by ... Magic? The Hand of God? Too many bad Egyptian cigarettes? ... the reader is left to wonder why these irrational Arabs are so angry and frustrated. I don't mean to go all Orwell on you kids, but language matters. The Washington Post can dismiss Egyptian popular anger toward Israel as something ginned up by cynical Arab leaders in part because it never honestly describes an Israeli action that killed five Egyptians.