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The Smoking Gun

An absurd metaphor.

by Barnabas
January 22, 2003

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The Smoking Gun_Barnabas-An absurd metaphor.
The administration knows that it may not find a "smoking gun" in the next few weeks that demonstrates Iraq is thwarting the will of the Security Council, so it is arguing that the warheads are part of a disturbing pattern of deceit and unwillingness to disarm.
--Michael Gordon, The New York Times,
January 17
At least the New York Times puts “smoking gun” in quotes, as if in embarrassed recognition of what it is, an absurd metaphor without a referent. I don’t know the precise etymology of “smoking gun” and like my colleague Dear Jon I am not going to look it up; as the expression is being used, I deduce that a “smoking gun” in the hand of someone standing over a bullet-ridden corpse is conclusive evidence that the one holding the gun is the murderer.

In detective fiction, where this scene is a cliche, the reader will automatically look for another suspect. In this popular context, “smoking gun” means the opposite of its use in the current crisis; instead of conclusive evidence, it means confusing and misleading evidence.

Additionally, the smoking gun doesn’t apply because a smoking gun has been discharged. Violence has been done. Not possession of the weapon, but use of it, is the metaphor’s referent. In that sense, the invasion of Kuwait was a smoking gun for the world to see.

Is that war continuing, or not? Several months ago I suggested that it was. If I was correct, we don’t need any more evidence. If that war is not continuing, then the ethical conclusion must be that unused weapons do not constitute an act of war, unless that standard applies to us too.

So when you see “smoking gun,” you may be sure of one thing: you have been told nothing at all. What is really scary is that the people who stand behind this metaphor —- and the journalists who ritualistically repeat it -- may be thinking nothing at all.

We hope the fuzziness is intentional: “Guess what I’m thinking,” may be a useful strategy in diplomacy as in poker. Before employing it, however, you have to know what you are thinking, even if you don’t know what your enemies are thinking. You can’t be guessing along with them.

I would hate to see World War III start as the result of committee speculation. “Is this what we meant by a smoking gun? Do you think? Oh well. Bombs away.”

Comments (4)


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Bystander from USA writes:
January 22, 2003
Since the charge being made against Iraq is that they have weapons of mass destruction, a smoking gun would be physically finding such weapons in Iraq. Does the author recognize this possible interpretation of the use of this phrase by journalists?

Barnabas from TPO writes:
January 22, 2003
The answer to Bystander's question is, Of course. Also, of course, if the mere possession of weapons of mass destruction is a smoking gun, the USA has more smoking guns than anybody. But in an appropriate use of the metaphor, the evidence of criminality is not the gun per se, but the smoke!

To employ another metaphor just as cliched, when it comes to weapons of mass destruction what is sauce for the goose is definitely not sauce for the gander!

Merriam Webster from www.m-w.com writes:
January 23, 2003
One entry found for smoking gun.

Main Entry: smoking gun

Function: noun

Date: 1974

: something that serves as conclusive evidence or proof especially of a crime

Barnabas from TPO writes:
January 24, 2003
And in 1974 Mr. Webster (I thought he was dead by then) had no idea, as we have now, of how many innocent people would be executed in the United States in succeeding decades on the basis of such conclusive evidence.

And in detective fiction, not authoritative but very popular, not even smoking guns are smoking guns as Webster defines them.

Besides, if dictionary one-liners were unimpeachable arguments, pundits would go out of business!

Thanks for writing!

Barnabas

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