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Condoleezza Rice on the Iraqi ‘threat’

The word “imminent”, as we all know, comes from the Latin imminere: to project or lean over, overhang, be near. The English word is defined by the OED thus:

1. Of an event, etc. (almost always of evil or danger): Impending threateningly, hanging over one’s head; ready to befall or overtake one; close at hand in its incidence; coming on shortly.

So does Hamlet, on seeing the army of Fortinbras yomp impressively past, muse (at least in Q2):

How stand I then,
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep, while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds […]

So too in 2 Henry VI does Salisbury thank Richard: “three times today / You have defended me from imminent death”. Well, this is clear. We all know what “imminent” means, right?

Wrong! It falls to Condoleezza Rice to correct centuries of misunderstanding by idiots like Shakespeare. Asked repeatedly by George Stephanopoulos last week ((Thanks to Jason.)) whether Iraq was, after all, an “imminent threat” to the US in early 2003, Rice finally responded:

George, ((Note the virtuosically condescending use of the interviewer’s first name, as though patiently explaining a definition to a schoolchild. Nice.)) the question of imminence isn’t whether or not somebody is going to strike tomorrow. It’s whether you believe you’re in a stronger position today to deal with a threat or whether you’re going to be in a stronger position tomorrow.

Salisbury and Hamlet must be kicking themselves. Obviously, to call something “imminent” makes no claim about how soon the thing itself will arrive. Actually, it makes no claim about the thing itself at all. Instead it is redefined as a claim about “you”. How “strong” do you feel today? Well, that’s somehow proportional to how “imminent” the thing is, whatever the hell it is. ((So on this argument, Hamlet’s feeling self-pityingly wimpy after getting a sniff of Fortinbras’s martial testosterone means that the soldiers’ deaths are not in fact imminent. Which, after all, they’re not! Maybe there’s something to this after all.)) In fact, the “imminent” thing doesn’t even need to exist to be imminent. (“We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”) Is it admissible to point out that, even on Condoleezza Rice’s unilateral redefinition of the word, global warming counts as an “imminent threat”?

But here ride the indefatigable lexicographers of the OED to the rescue once again. For, shaking their heads donnishly at the foolishness of the world, they note sadly at definition 4 for “imminent” that it is sometimes:

Confused with immanent.

Perhaps now we are getting somewhere. The primary sense of “immanent” given by OED is “Indwelling, inherent; actually present or abiding in; remaining within”. So if Iraq was an “immanent threat”, the threat was presumably strictly limited to its own borders. On the other hand, you might suppose an “immanent threat” to be a threat spread evenly throughout the entire universe, like some God. How to choose between such very different implications? Luckily, there is another sense of “immanent”, from the Scholastic idea of an “immanent act”:

2. immanent act (action): an act which is performed entirely within the mind of the subject, and produces no external effect.

I think it most likely that the research theologians of the White House intended to evoke this idea. Brilliantly, they thus openly insisted that Saddam’s “threat” was nothing but a kind of mental construct, performed entirely within the minds of Rice and her chums, and nowhere in reality. Government spokespersons were desperately trying to confess this all along, crying for help by shrieking: “Look, this is all just in our heads! It’s an immanent threat!”, but a vast leftwing conspiracy of journalists kept deliberately mistranscribing “immanent” as “imminent”, causing an unwitting public to suppose that the politicians were constructing an unwarranted fantasy about incipient catastrophe. And thus a great deal of undeserved scorn was heaped upon the Bush administration. I only hope it is not too late to correct this egregious error.

  1. 1  Loz Actual  May 9, 2007, 2:36 am 

    Upon reading Rice’s impromptu English lecture, I immediately thought “oooh! oooh! I think she means Immanent! Hahahaha! Hey, that’ll make a fitting comment!”.

    Then I continued reading and found that, of course, you’d already been there.

    I greatly enjoy pedantry, words, the disintegration of hypocrisy and of lies, shameless mockery and fun; This blog is magnificent, ticks all boxes, all the time.

    Not only do you make only those points which need to be made, but you do so accurately, and with precisely the right degree of needle-toothed malice – practically grinning sadism. The resulting articles are a savage delight to read, very satisfying indeed.

    I’m buying your book, by way of expressing (and indulging) my appreciation of this sort of thing.

    Hopefully you’ll keep up the good work for some time yet, certainly you never need fear any lack of suitable source material.

  2. 2  Guano  May 9, 2007, 7:35 am 

    I suggest that you tackle the word “threat” as well. The air was thick with the word about 4 years ago but politicians seem to have forgotten using it. The word “threat” on its own implies impending danger, so even without using the word “imminent” they were implying that Iraq was about to do something bad. If they meant something that migh happen in the future they should have used the word “risk” though that probably wouldn’t have got the MPs into the right voting lobby.

  3. 3  Steven  May 10, 2007, 12:54 am 

    Loz, you are very kind, thank you. Hope you enjoy the book as much as the blog. ;)

    Guano, I take your point on the word “threat” v “risk”, but I think a threat can be long-term. We can say catastrophic consequences of global warming are a threat without implying that we think the whole of Manhattan will be underwater tomorrow. Similarly, in a way it is true to say that actually-nuclear North Korea is a “threat” (perhaps, as they say, to “stability in the region” etc), without saying we think Mr Kim will actually push the big red button imminently.

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