On Brian Williams's terrible ‘beauty’ gaffe

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Brian Williams pictured in 2014 - AP/BRAD BARKET
  • AP/Brad Barket
  • Brian Williams pictured in 2014
Missiles erupt from American warships to strike Damascus, and Brian Williams of MSNBC calls the sight "beautiful." He's denounced, of course. The chemical attack on Syrian civilians, many of them children, by Bashar al-Assad outraged Americans of every political inclination; but the president's eye-for-an-eye response—or what he'd clearly like to have Americans applaud as an eye-for-an-eye response—disgusts many of us as a tone-deaf glorification of violence.

The proper response to violence is never violence. It's something else.

In an earlier era, lyricism was tolerated. Francis Scott Key stood on the deck of a British ship in 1812, watched the day-long bombardment of Fort McHenry, and wrote the Star-Spangled Banner. Key marveled that the fort withstood the "rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air," but nowhere in his first verse—or the three others no one ever sings—does he disapprove of those rockets and wish the dispute had been settled over tea. He watched, transfixed. Those rockets were amazing!

Like Key, Williams got lyrical, but his reach exceeded his grasp—certainly his grasp of what it's acceptable these days to say about bombardments. "We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean," said Williams. "I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen—'I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.' . . . "

Maybe if he'd said ghastly beauty or the like, we'd have cut him a little slack. But probably not. Bringing in Cohen sealed the case against him. "Note to Brian Williams and MSNBC," said a representative comment on Facebook: "Bombs are not beautiful, and Leonard Cohen was anti-war. He was being sarcastic."

Actually, Leonard Cohen was being complicated, which is why his songs don't come and go in a week. The Cohen line comes from the 1987 song "First We Take Manhattan," which is not only about terrorism but manages—in that sly, ironic way Cohen alone was licensed to practice—to celebrate it:

They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

I'm guided by a signal in the heavens (guided, guided)
I'm guided by this birthmark on my skin (guided, guided by)
I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons (guided)
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin. . .

Cohen was once asked about those lyrics, and here's what he said:

"There's something about terrorism that I've always admired. The fact that there are no alibis or no compromises. That position is always very attractive. I don't like it when it's manifested on the physical plane. I don't really enjoy the terrorist activities, but psychic terrorism. I remember there was a great poem by Irving Layton that I once read, I'll give you a paraphrase of it. It was, 'Well, you guys blow up an occasional airline and kill a few children here and there,' he says, 'but our terrorists, Jesus, Freud, Marx, Einstein. The whole world is still quaking.'"

I think Williams was after something lofty with his chatter about missiles and beauty. Next time, he should leave it to the poets.


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