Quiet, Please, on The Western Front

I have a small thought. I would like to speak of it in a low-key manner. My thought is that we are all talking too much, or rather too dramatically—too colorfully, and carelessly—about things that are really quite dreadful. And we should stop it.

I will start with this: I have been thinking about hospitals for the psychologically and emotionally unwell, and how they run.

Now, there are many wicked people in the world, and some of them are stone evil, but some are also not at all sane. They are frighteningly obsessed or delusional; they have illusions of omnipotence, or no control over their impulses and desires; they hear voices, are unhinged by fantasies of rage and revenge, imagine that they are the reincarnation of Napoleon, or Saladin.

You can ponder whether Saddam Hussein is more evil than crazy or crazy than evil, but anyone who’s seen him on the news would likely conclude that Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber who failed to blow himself and 400 other people out of the sky, is quite clearly unstable.

And there are of course many Richard Reids. The problem in this age of weapons of mass destruction is that we don’t have one Saddam to worry about but cells of Saddams, rings of Reids, scores, hundreds of independent operators, some of whom are trying to create their own weapons of mass destruction, their own obliterates aimed at obliterating life in this place or that.

And many of them are not fully sane. Which is a problem. Which is why I’m thinking about mental institutions.

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If you have ever worked in one or visited a friend in one, you’ve probably observed some things about how the unwell are treated. For instance: It is always wise when speaking to the unstable to speak softly if you can, and soothingly if possible. It isn’t good to be loud or theatrical in your subject matter or usage. It is wise not to speak with heightened drama, because for the unstable things are quite dramatic enough. They have storms going on inside them. They don’t need your howling verbal gusts. So, a general rule: Never excite the unstable.

At the same time some of the unstable are dangerous or potentially so, and this cannot be ignored. So it’s always good to be planning ahead. It is wise to be preparing restraints, to have areas in which the dangerous can be segregated from the general population, to have security guards who speak softly but, as they say, carry a big stick. It is wise to have serious plans for treatment, wise to make sure that they cannot get their hands on, say, the ingredients to build a bomb.

Nurses and doctors in such hospitals know all this, especially the part about not bringing unneeded drama to their patients. They do not tell someone who may behave violently, “We hate you and plan to do terrible things to you. The next time you are bad we’re going to kick you, punch you, push you in a hole and put a large cover on it. Then we’re going to cover you with Italian dressing, let you marinate overnight, and cook you.” That kind of language would less likely discourage dramatic action than summon it.

And that’s what I think we all ought to be keeping in our minds these days, how not to summon dramatic action from the marginally stable.

*   *   *

We are at war. This is a grave time. And yet in some ways we are being quite careless in what we are saying and how it might be received. We are being too colorful, too vivid, and unnecessarily so. We are acting as if we are not fully aware of the gravity of the moment.

One gets the sense, reading the newspapers and columnists and Web sites, and listening to news conferences, that we are talking too much these days, saying too much and saying it too graphically.

We are being noisy and clamorous.

We are frightening the inmates. This is not good.

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“Let’s Nuke Em All!” Britain’s Daily Mail headlined this week. The story was about the U.S. government review of its nuclear capabilities. Someone—Mary McGrory wondered in her column if it was “doomsday planners” or “a subversive showoff”—leaked the news that the U.S. may be re-evaluating its nuclear posture, strategy and potential targets with an eye to breaking the taboo on tactical nuclear weapons. The New York Times, one of the great newspapers of the world and received by some in the world as a voice of the West, ran an editorial in which it likened America to a “rogue state.” A columnist in the Boston Globe said President Bush is “as frightening as al Qaeda.”

All of this of course followed the previous week’s story of secret plans to invade Iraq.

On Wednesday, President Bush took to the airwaves in an informal news conference and refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in the war, explaining that his position was “a way to say to people who would harm America: Don’t do it. . . . There’s a consequence.”

Indeed there is, and it would no doubt be terrible. But one wonders if this subject is not better confined to a grave and formal speech to the nation from a somber president, and not served up along with teasing of the press—“That you, Stretch? Oh, it’s Superstretch”—and jokes about the length and complexity of follow-ups. Perhaps this is the White House’s way of showing the president is utterly unrattled by the facts of the new world. But there are other ways to show that he is unrattled, if that has to be shown.

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Why are we being so careless and colorful, so offhand, at a time when what faces us is so somber? Maybe we in the media are not thinking of the impression we make en masse, all together, on the world. We think of the impression we make individually, not as part of a media wave that rolls over the globe each day.

And people, even the most sophisticated, tend to project some of their inner world on the outer world around them. The unstable see themselves surrounded by threats, or secret signs. But the stable have illusions too. People who are sane tend to project sanity onto others. Those who, like the writers at great Web sites and great newspapers, are fully stable, imagine that their thoughts and words are received by the stable. And of course that is true. Except when it isn’t.

What they think and write and say is also disseminated throughout the world of America’s enemies, and is not always received in a way that is sober and measured. Some of those who see, on the computer in their home outside Tehran, the headline “Let’s Nuke Em All!” will take it quite literally. They will receive it as yet another reason to get back to work packing the dirty nuke into the backpack. The man who leaked the nuclear review story perhaps thought he was making the world safer—that everyone would understand it as he did. But not everyone will.

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“Children will listen,” the old song says. But so will the fragile and mad, and it’s not good to excite them. We should not be leaking that we are reviewing our nuclear capacity; we should be quietly reviewing it. We should not be reporting in hyperventilated tones the review of nuclear policy; we should remember that this only feeds the sickness of those who mean us harm. We should be very quietly debating in the offices of government what an appropriate response would be to the bombing of America; we should reach conclusions, create a plan, and very quietly tell the leaders of the real rogue nations exactly what will happen to them, and to the terrorists who slumber within their borders, if they should dare to bomb an American city. Our words should be blunt little bombs whispered in the ears of Arab leaders in a manner that leaves them with the kind of ringing headache you sometimes get when you’re told terrible news that is true.

But we should probably not be having chatty conversations about whether or not it would be a good idea to take out Mecca.

This is not censorship, it is using judgment in a time of war. It is awareness that projecting stability and sanity onto others, while polite and even touching, is not always warranted.

We should lower our voices, and be chary with words. As if we were well-meaning professionals in an asylum who want to keep everyone safe, and help the sick, and keep them safe as possible too.