One of the main ways modern political dialogue has gone wrong is in various people’s use of the word “lying” to describe what those they disagree with are doing. If you’ve followed any political dialogue at all over the last 10 years, you’ll know what I’m talking about. So, for example, person A makes claim X, and when X is later shown to be untrue, person B accuses person A of having lied. Person B’s logic might seem sound: after all, person A’s claim was untrue.
Yet such promiscuous use of the word “lying” shows either an unawareness of its true meaning or a purposeful misuse of the word. To call someone a liar should carry force because it’s such a strong statement; however, the tremendous overuse of the word that we see nowadays has taken away much of the strength of what should be a powerful and legitimate rhetorical tool. The awful consequence is that when someone really is lying about an important issue for example, a high government official talking about the war those who are used to hearing the terms “lying” and “liar” used indiscriminately will not pay attention and will, therefore, miss out on important information.
How is saying something untrue not lying? The crucial issue is intent. If I knowingly say something that is untrue, then that is definitely lying. If, however, I believe it true, then I may be sadly misinformed, but I am not lying. In my role as an economics professor, I am constantly grading exams and assignments. If I were to accept what seems to be the commonly accepted use of the term “lie,” think how bizarre my comments on my students’ written work would be: “You’re lying,” “This is a lie,” and “liar” all those terms might appear in the margins of their work. My students would be right to call for my resignation because the fact is that they do not purposefully make false statements, but, rather, make claims that they believe to be true. So, why should we hold people in debate to lower standards than my students have for me?
One last point about lying before I get to issues of war and peace: there’s one kind of situation in which we probably should use the word “liar” but don’t, and that is when the person says something that’s true even though he thinks it is untrue. For example, if I think I saw a person in a bar and later, on the witness stand, deny that I saw him there, then I am lying, even if it turns out that he was not in the bar. The effects are typically much less harmful because, after all, I am telling the truth.
The most famous current use of the word “liar” is, of course, to describe George W. Bush and what he claimed about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the March 2003 U.S. invasion. From what I’ve read over the years, I think there’s a high probability that George Bush did lie. But when I ask various people to give me evidence of his lies, even those who follow the issues more closely than I do, what they typically give me is not evidence of lies, but, rather, evidence that what he said was not true. Much of this evidence, as is now well known, is good, high-quality evidence. But to say, on that basis, that he is lying is to make a non sequitur, a logical jump from the facts to the conclusion without the requisite reasoning in between. I think, from what I’ve observed of George Bush over the years, that the man engages in a tremendous amount of wishful thinking. I think he wished there to be weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that that made him much more open to evidence, however tenuous, of those weapons than he otherwise would have been. I also think, from what I’ve observed and read, that George Bush is one of the least curious people we’ve had as president in my lifetime (I was born during Truman’s administration) and the most intellectually lazy. Both of these traits leave him open to being misled and to taking as truth things that are not true. And, by the way, if I’m wrong about any of this, I’m not lying. It’s what I honestly believe. Moreover, if I’m wrong and if someone can prove to me that I am, then I’ll admit it. That’s one of the tests of intent. When someone says something that turns out to be untrue, how does he respond when someone else gives him evidence of its falsity? If he resists, the probability that he was lying originally is higher than if he admits his mistake.
Now to a recent episode in which, I believe, a high government official really did lie. On May 4, 2006, Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. secretary of defense, gave a talk in Atlanta that was attended by Ray McGovern, a retired CIA employee. In a question-and-answer session, McGovern confronted Rumsfeld, accusing him of lying for saying that he (Rumsfeld) knew, before the March 2003 invasion, some actual locations of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. McGovern gave no evidence that Rumsfeld had lied; all he gave was evidence that he didn’t tell the truth. The crucial part missing was evidence on Rumsfeld’s intent. But then Rumsfeld walked into the trap. In denying that he had lied, Rumsfeld told McGovern that he had thought that those weapons were there, but not that he had ever claimed for sure that they were. McGovern countered that Rumsfeld had said it with certainty. According to McGovern, CNN, which had covered the event, went back and found Rumsfeld on March 30, 2003, saying on camera, to ABC’s George Stephanopolous, that he knew, not that he just thought, where the weapons were. And, indeed, the transcript of that interview is still on the Web. In that interview, Rumsfeld states, “We know where they [the weapons of mass destruction] are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south, and north somewhat.” So it looks as if McGovern caught Rumsfeld in a lie, not necessarily on March 30, 2003, but on May 4, 2006. We still don’t know whether he lied to George Stephanopolous; but it appears that he lied to McGovern and to his Atlanta audience.
Rumsfeld could have an out. He could argue that he had remembered saying only that he thought the weapons were there and had remembered wrong. In fact, that gets us back to one of the tests for whether someone is lying. When Rumsfeld got back to Washington, did he or one of his staffers check the Web, as I was able to do in under two minutes, and find out what he did say in March 2003? That’s one sign of someone who cares about the truth. Also, did he issue an apology to Mr. McGovern and to his Atlanta audience? I’m guessing that he hasn’t. Of course, Rumsfeld’s not doing so is not sufficient evidence of his having lied, but certainly is sufficient to justify a high degree of suspicion. And certainly it would be sufficient for causing one to think that Rumsfeld has little respect for the truth, little respect for debate, little humility about his office, and little belief in personal accountability.
Copyright © 2006 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.