- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2003

The other day, Britain’s Plain English Campaign announced its Golden Bull Awards for the year’s choicest gobbledygook and presented (in absentia) its prestigious Foot-In-Mouth honor to Donald Rumsfeld. This was his winning performance:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me,” the defense secretary began, “because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

If the Plain English Campaign thinks that’s the worst use of English this year, then the Plain English Campaign is plain nuts. If there’s a point to these guys, it’s that there’s an awful lot of bureaucratese and jargon around that officials use to evade responsibility, and it’s useful to have someone point that out.

If one had to extend this to the war on terror, I would be in favor of pointing out the laziness of the “root cause” crowd — all the poverty-breeds-resentment, resentment-breeds-desperation, desperation-breeds-terrorism, terrorism-breeds-generalities, generalities-breed-cliches stuff.

Any response to the latest Palestinian atrocity that involves “ending the cycle of violence” and “getting the peace process back on track” is also worthy of derision.

But Rummy does not fall into this group. The defense secretary is perhaps the best speaker of Plain English in English-speaking politics, and it would be a less despised profession if there were more like him. Want an example? At some Pentagon briefing during the Afghan campaign, a showboating reporter noted that human-rights groups had objected to the dropping of cluster bombs and demanded to know why the U.S. was using them.

Mr. Rumsfeld replied: “They’re being used on frontline al Qaeda and Taliban troops to try to kill them.” Plain enough for you?

Or how about his dismissal of France and Germany? “Old Europe”: Within a week, Rummy’s two-word throwaway had become the accepted paradigm of trans-Atlantic relations. Belgium — Old Europe. Poland — New Europe.

I mention these examples not in mitigation but because his little riff about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns is in fact a brilliant distillation of quite a complex matter.

Let us take an example close to the heart of arrogant Texas cowboys: John Wayne is holed up in an old prospector’s shack. He peeks over the sill and drawls, “It’s quiet out there. Too quiet.” What he means is he knows the things he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know the precise location of the bad guys, but he knows they’re out there somewhere inching through the dust, perhaps trying to get to the large cactus from behind which they can get a clean shot at him. Thus he knows what to be on the lookout for: He is living in a world of known unknowns.

But suppose, while he was scanning the horizon for a black hat or the glint of a revolver, a passenger jet suddenly ploughed into the shack and vaporized both him and it. That would be one of Mr. Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns: something poor John Wayne didn’t know he didn’t know — until it hit him.

That’s how most of the world reacted to the events of September 11, 2001: We didn’t know this was one of the things we didn’t know. Even for countries with some experience in the matter, terrorism meant detonating bombs in shopping streets and railway stations. As the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman wrote, “The failure to prevent September 11 was not a failure of intelligence or coordination. It was a failure of imagination.” In other words, it was an unknown unknown: we didn’t know enough to be alert for the things we didn’t know.

There’s a legitimate argument about that. Given al Qaeda’s stated ambitions, given their previous targeting of the World Trade Center, given the number of young Arab men taking flight lessons in the United States, given Mohamed Atta’s indiscreet remarks to an Agriculture Department official, maybe September 11 should have been a known unknown — one of those things we were scanning the horizon for.

Mr. Friedman argues that “even if all the raw intelligence signals had been shared among the FBI, the CIA and the White House, I’m convinced that there was no one there who would have put them all together, who would have imagined evil on the scale Osama bin Laden did.”

Maybe so. The Cold War was a half-century of known unknowns. We didn’t know the precise timing or specifics of what would happen but we knew the rough shape so well that, from “Dr. Strangelove” to “Where The Wind Blows,” the known unknowns generated the most numbingly homogeneous body of predictive fiction ever seen.

It’s trickier now. This is an age of unknown unknowns. We know some of the things we don’t know — the precise state of Iran’s nuclear program, who North Korea has been pitching its wares to, where the missing Soviet nuke materials have gone walkabout, who else has the kind of “explosive socks” found by Scotland Yard and MI5 in Britain last week.

But we have no real idea in what combination these states and groups and technology and incendiary footwear might impress themselves upon us, or what other links in the chain there might be. And we might not know until we switch on the TV and the screen’s full of smoke again, but this time it’s May 7 and Rotterdam, or Feb. 3 and Vancouver, or Oct. 23 and Glasgow. And we realize once again there are things we didn’t know we didn’t know.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s line is a cool, clearheaded way of understanding this new world. The fact that the Plain English Campaign chooses to mock Rummy rather than the platitudinous Colin Powell or the mellifluously banal French foreign minister or any of the other politicians unwilling to rise to the challenge of the times is a reflection on them rather than the defense secretary.

Whatever credibility the Plain English Campaign might once have had, they have blown. They sound, to put in plain English, like a bunch of snot-nosed twits.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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