The passive blame game: “mistakes were made” in Brussels

Photo: Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens by Theirry Charlier, AFP/Getty Images

Now that the bombing stories are done, it’s time for the blame stories — and the passive voice that inevitably accompanies them. Like the LA Times story titled: ” ‘Mistakes were probably made,’ Belgian official acknowledges after Brussels attacks.”

Ya think?

People performed these acts. Belgian and European police and intelligence agencies, obviously, missed something. That’s why I find the use of passives in this article  so revealing, starting with the classic “Mistakes were made” (or in this case, weakened with a weasel word, “probably made.”). Here’s a revelation for you: somebody definitely made a mistake, because otherwise you’d have to admit that the normal, efficient functioning of law enforcement includes terrorist bombings.

Let’s take a look at the revealing passives in the article (shown in bold italic) and their significance. My commentary in brackets, followed by a frank rewrite.

The failure of Belgian authorities to foil deadly attacks on the airport and metro this week has fueled new questions about the nation’s ability to handle the extremist threat and on Thursday prompted two top ministers to offer their resignations. [This is the lead, and it is not passive. But I don’t think unspecified people asking questions qualifies as news.]

Frank rewrite: Any thinking person wonders how the bombers eluded Belgian security. So two government ministers offered to resign. (But they’re still on the job.)

Mistakes were probably made by our agencies and in that case secretaries have to take their responsibilities,” [Justice Minister] Geens acknowledged in comments to Belgian public television. “So if the prime minister deemed it necessary for the stability of his government and our country, we are willing to pay the price. We wouldn’t have offered if mistakes hadn’t been made.

Frank rewrite: We screwed up, obviously.

Later, however, the justice minister argued that El Bakraoui [the bomber who the Turks warned the Belgians about] probably was not the key player in the coordinated strikes on the airport and a metro train. “He’s only one of the perpetrators, and not even the most enterprising one,” Geens said. “He was not the mastermind of this affair.”

Frank rewrite: A stupid bomber fooled us.

On Thursday, a U.S. official said that at least three of the attackers in Brussels . . . were on a U.S. counter-terrorism watch list before Tuesday’s attack. The official . . . would not say how their names were added to the list, or whether they were known to U.S. counter-terrorism officials before Ibrahim El Bakraoui’s arrest in Turkey last year.

Frank rewrite: The Americans have covered their asses, because some unnamed person says they knew about these guys in some unspecified way.

Najim Laachraoui, who blew himself up at Brussels Airport along with one of the brothers, was also on the U.S. watch list and was known to have traveled to Syria, the official said. . . . Laachraoui was also believed to have been a bomb maker in November’s attacks in Paris, U.S. authorities say . . .

Frank rewrite: An unidentified American says Najim Laachraoui went to Syria and made bombs for the Paris attacks. Draw your own conclusions.

An undetermined number of U.S. citizens remain unaccounted for after the Brussels attacks, [said] Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman.

Frank rewrite: The State Department has lost some Americans.

Belgium, a nation of 11 million, has been under fire for what critics call its laggard response to the terrorism threat . . . since the strikes on Paris night spots left 130 people dead. Most participants in those strikes were later identified as Belgian nationals or French citizens who had lived in Belgium, where the attacks were believed to have been planned. [Once we start talking about accusations, reporters start using passive voice. “Under fire” is an interesting choice of analogy for verbal assaults after a bombing.]

Frank rewrite: Some people from Belgium attacked Paris. We’re pretty sure they planned it in Belgium, but we can’t prove it.

The deadly attacks in Paris and Brussels have renewed calls for European countries to share more information on terrorism and criminal networks. [“Renewed calls” is not strictly passive, but still hides who’s calling for changes.]

Frank rewrite: Europe is still behaving like it’s made up of separate countries. That’s much less efficient than the surveillance state we have in America.

When it’s blame time, passive voice runs rampant. Watch for it. And when you see it, ask who is trying to hide — and why reporters are using language that implies actions but hides who’s taking them.

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  1. It would be helpful for officials to talk about layers of security, whether physical or cyber. No system offers 100% prevention. They can assure citizens they will identify where and how the criminals broke through, shore up the layers for the future and continue to prepare for different, new attempts. Finally, let citizens know what they can do to help–“Be observant and report concerns to X.” Providing daily life scenarios, rather than asking for help in the abstract, is more effective.

  2. Great piece, and a superb lesson in how we all seek to avoid being brutally frank and honest.

    Although . . . for a guy so alert to the crazies who support Trump, I would have expected you to cut journos and officials some slack in not wishing to see a tragedy like Brussels be fuel for a greater political tragedy stateside.

    Nor for its even worse equivalent in Europe. Hello, Marine Le Pen.

  3. People would be more willing to own up to their mistakes if:

    1) Our society wasn’t so quick to sue everyone for anything*
    2) The media wasn’t so vicious in their attacks on people

    People need to be held accountable for their mistakes. But the default has become to make a mountain out of every tiny ant hill that pops up. And once the media gets on something it becomes a feeding frenzy. That’s why I’ve stopped watching TV news. I don’t want to encourage or reward bad behavior.

    * If you haven’t seen it, Google the woman who sued TLC for broadcasting an episode of its show “Say Yes To The Dress” before her May wedding.