The temptation we have to fight, in confronting the horror of an atrocity like the attacks in Mumbai, is mistaking the natural grief and rage that we feel in the face of that pain as a call to express ourselves in ever more intense language. Blogs and punditry are ultimately small conversations between large groups of people. Ideas and themes are battered around, and while we often feel that there is no limit to what the blogosphere talks about, ultimately the flow of discourse is just as self-reflective and circular as any conversation. We talk to each other, and then we keep talking. The trouble is that the desire to be heard can inspire us to privilege volume over clarity.
When we are presented with a grief so enormous and incomprehensible, we who have made language our business feel a desperate desire to use that language to make some sense of what we've confronting. We want to be heard, and we express ourselves out of the conviction that we must. That's natural. But the temptation, which we have to work to avoid, is to believe that there is some utility in merely piling up adjectives to express our frustration. The temptation is to believe that if one person is saying "awful," the second says something more in using "terrible". The sad truth is that using "unconsionable" does little more than using "bad". The important question is what we advocate, and with an event like Mumbai, what language could match the event? The desire to express more is admirable. The notion that scolding others for not using stronger language is somehow doing something is lamentable. Poetry makes nothing happen.
Would I ever begrudge anyone their attempts to make some small moves in the direction of sense, in the face of the unbearable? Of course not, never. I am in many ways a hypocrite and guilty of self-deception, but I'm not hypocrite enough to do such a thing from my perch on a blog. What I mean is only that we have to listen to content, to ideas, and regarding the two most important ideas involved in this tragedy, I have seen nothing but unanimity: this is a tragedy of greatest magnitude, and those responsible have to be hunted down and arrested or killed. There are of course vastly different notions of what is the best way to prosecute the latter, and broader foreign policy discussions are naturally of great controversy. But I sense a great frustration in certain corners of the blogosphere that some of us aren't saying more, or acting more angry, or demanding revenge in ever-louder voices. Yet they advocate no different action than the ones we have been advocating, recognized in the intelligence community as the most effective way to combat terrorism: the slow and tedious and dramatically unsatisfying work of police work.
We must never mistake our self-expression for action, for doing something, or worse, mistake the failure of others to say what we want them to as a failure of theirs to do what is right. Saying something more intensely isn't saying something different. At the end of the day, there are no words to express events like Mumbai, though that failure is no reason we have to stop trying. But we must not let anyone mistake our reticence for apathy. The course of action I and others like me are advocating, after all, is among the most extreme we have: find the people responsible, and kill them. The enormity of that, like the enormity of these events, is what will remain, not language.