Quote of the day

A writer for the National Review plumbs new depths of absurdity

Published December 30, 2009 6:24PM (EST)

Sometimes, while reading through the blogosphere, I find things written by intelligent people that are so at odds with that intelligence that, dumbfounded, I can only think of that famous quote from "Shawshank Redemption," "How can you be so obtuse? ... Is it deliberate?"

Today, an example of that was provided on the Corner, one of the National Review's blogs. The guilty party was one Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson — who is, swear to God, a former professorwrote, in a post titled "Adverbs Can Tell Us a Lot":

When we do know for a fact that Mutallab tried to blow up a plane, we get a presidential "allegedly" ("a passenger allegedly tried to ignite an explosive device on his body, setting off a fire"), and yet when we don't know all the facts, as in the Professor Gates mess, we get instantaneous certainty ("the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.")

I won't get into the Gates saga, except to say that by the time Obama spoke it was well-known that Gates had shown his identification to the police. so the "already" Hanson emphasizes was simply a statement of fact.

Besides, it's the "allegedly" part that left me slack-jawed.

I had thought that most people, especially ones smart enough to have won the National Humanities Medal, as Hanson has, knew that in the American system of justice, even terrorists are considered innocent until proven guilty. ("Fox and Friends" hosts are obviously excluded from "most people" here.) Indeed, unless someone changed this without telling me, the Supreme Court has said the presumption of innocence "is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law."

So why does Obama use the word "allegedly," especially in a case where so many witnesses saw Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to set off a bomb? Well, hopefully it's at least in part because it's nice for the president to show that someone still believes in the principles outlined in the Constitution. But it's also because the word "allegedly" is standard language for prosecutors and for people like the president; Obama's pronouncement of guilt could, in some instances, lead to legal hassles for the prosecution over the question of whether he'd tainted the jury pool.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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