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November 6, 2006

Who Is 'We'?
Part Two


David R. Henderson

In one of my early columns on Antiwar.com, "Who Is 'We'?," I pointed out that people often mistakenly use the term "we" when talking about the actions of government officials. So, for example, if the government of country X bombs people in country Y, many people who live in country X will say, "We bombed country Y." Many of the country X residents will say this even if they objected to the bombing and strenuously protested. I noticed this first when following the protests against the Vietnam War and discussing that war with Americans when I moved to the United States from Canada in 1972. Many of them were outraged by their government's actions in Vietnam and yet they referred to the government's actions as "our" actions. I found this strange at the time, and the fact that I've observed people doing this for the last 34 years has made it no less strange. Indeed, most of my fellow American writers on this Web site, no matter how strongly they object to the U.S. government's actions abroad, still talk about those actions as "ours."

In that article, I pointed out that it was the mistaken use of the word "we" that caused some people to think that the Sept. 11 attacks on innocent Americans were justified, and it was that same mistaken use that caused one American survivor of those attacks to think that bombing innocent people in Afghanistan was justified. In other words, the stakes involved in using language correctly are huge.

The number of e-mails I've received about that one article, both from those who love it and those who don't, exceeds the number I've received on any of my other Antiwar.com columns. Those who love it seem, by the content of their e-mails, to understand it. Those who disagree don't generally understand it. They seem to think that I'm throwing out the concept of "we." I'm not. I'm simply saying that the term "we" should be used accurately. So, for example, if you and I go to the restaurant, it's accurate to say that we went to the restaurant. But if I beat someone up at the restaurant and you don't, and then you immediately call the police, then it is completely inaccurate to say that we beat someone up.

Another reason it matters so much to use the term "we" accurately is that if we don't, then we (and I'm using the word "we" correctly here) won't hold government officials as responsible for their actions as they are. Have you ever noticed how low the standards are that most of us apply to government officials? So, for example, a government official might break into the wrong residence in the middle of the night and kill some innocent person, but the official is not charged with manslaughter. Someone who is not a government official but who does the same thing would probably be charged with manslaughter – or worse. There are probably many reasons that government officials are held to such low standards. But surely one of them is that they aren't even accurately identified as the perpetrators. Instead, many of us refer to "we" as the perps, even though we had nothing to do with it.

Consider the following from a newsletter published by the Media Research Center, a conservative organization that looks for, and finds, liberal bias in the media. Under the heading, "Osama bin Limbaugh?" is a quote from liberal commentator Keith Olbermann of MSNBC. In granting Limbaugh the title of "Today's Worst Person in the World," Olbermann said:

"Our winner tonight: Comedian Rush Limbaugh. Suggesting that civilian deaths in Lebanon are necessary to stop terror: 'Until those civilians start paying the price for propping up these kind [sic] of regimes, it's not going to end folks.' That would be a little less alarming if it didn't echo something another commentator said nine years ago. 'The American people, they are not exonerated from responsibility because they chose this government and voted for it, despite their knowledge of its crimes.' That was said by Osama bin Laden. Rush Limbaugh, following the logic and ethics of Osama bin Laden, today's Worst Person in the World!" (Countdown, MSNBC, Aug 1., 2006)

Of course, Olbermann's equation of Limbaugh's and bin Laden's ethics is absurd on its face, the biggest reason being that ethics aren't just about what you say but, more important, about what you do. Limbaugh – call it a hunch – has never committed mass murder, while bin Laden has.

Nevertheless, it is true that Limbaugh's and bin Laden's reasoning is very similar. Limbaugh, if the quote is correct (and I'm not willing to pay $59.95 to get into Limbaugh's club and see if it's correct), justified killing innocent civilians because they propped up a regime that kills innocent people. Bin Laden justified killing innocent civilians because they voted for a regime that kills innocent people. Of course, in fact, not all of them voted for it, but put that aside; bin Laden is no more incorrect than Limbaugh – surely some of the innocent Lebanese for whom Limbaugh felt so little sympathy were simply going about their lives and did not support the regime. The point is that both bin Laden and Limbaugh think that people are responsible for other people's actions. Both have drunk the "we" Kool-Aid, with the result being confused thinking and horrible conclusions.

Copyright © 2006 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.

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David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an associate professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life (Chicago Park Press.) His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008.)

He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. Visit his Web site.

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