Serious times call for serious words
On Christmas 1991, escalatory ladders, and finding the right thing to say to keep the wrong thing from happening
■ Americans are older than the world as a whole; the median American is 39 years old, meaning that half of us were born before 1983 and half of us after. Assuming that most people aren't especially aware of geopolitics at least until they've graduated from kindergarten, then it's safe to assume that only about half of us remember anything meaningful about the Cold War.
■ Demographics alone rarely tell the whole story of anything, but they certainly have some effect on the way that people perceive of big events and big ideas. Thus, when the 79-year-old President of the United States says of his Russian counterpart, "I don't think there's any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon", he not only risks making the wrong point diplomatically, he also risks being badly misunderstood by people who don't share his historical memory.
■ It is possible to have the right idea (of course it would be mad to use nuclear weapons), but sometimes quiet resolve and purposeful reticence are more valuable than shaking an audience by the lapels.
■ Someone who grew up with the threat of nuclear winter ever-present in the cultural background noise (as roughly half of Americans did) may not hear anything extraordinary in the word "Armageddon": It's unfortunately familiar. So familiar (and unremarkable) that there were episodes of "Night Court" and "The Golden Girls" devoted to the omnipresent risk of World War III. Warning of nuclear dangers to an audience that remembers "The world could end tomorrow" as part of its sitcom routine might seem to the speaker like no big deal at all.
■ But half of the world has been blissfully insulated from the prospect, at least for the most part. The risk of conflict involving nuclear weapons ought to be taken seriously, but it's essential to realize that frames of reference are not the same for everyone. What might have been a routine way to describe something in the past can have an entirely different set of connotations now, and having a prudential attitude towards preventing a worst-case scenario in no small part involves thoughtful restraint in both word and deed.
■ Scrambling up the escalatory ladder could surely turn worst-case in a hurry. Racing up the rhetorical ladder as a means of deterrence may itself be an unforced error. We're not always even capable of speaking the same language among ourselves as a country, but the whole world is the audience now.