"Proportionate Response" and the Meaning of Words
Dec 23, 2014
Pres. Obama’s has just threatened a “proportionate response” to North Korea’s cyber-attack on Sony Pictures’ computer systems. I’m at a loss to understand what he really meant by that, or why he chose the words he did. In quantation, getting the words right is critically important – the numbers mean nothing without them. So today’s word is “proportionate,” a word with obvious quantation implications.
One possible meaning that Pres. Obama intended for “proportionate” was that our response to North Korea would be a cyber-response, as opposed to, say, banking sanctions, or a military blockade, or excluding Kim Jong-un from all of the best night clubs. That seems improbable, since why would we telegraph what our response would be? And why limit our options to actions that may or may not be feasible or meaningful?
More likely, Pres. Obama meant that we intend to inflict roughly the same amount of damage on them as they inflicted on us. I think of this as the “2.73 eyes for 2.73 eyes, and 4.82 teeth for 4.82 teeth” principle. Setting aside the obvious question of just how we would measure the amount of damage one U.S. corporation sustained, is this really an appropriate policy for random, profound acts of violence committed against us? Do we consider simply having to give back the money he stole an appropriate punishment for an armed robber?
The result is a statement that most would disagree with, to the extent that it’s comprehensible. Newt Gingrich, a much more effective communicator, responded differently. He suggested a disproportionate response, inflicting five to ten times the damage on North Korea that U.S. interests sustained. That would be consistent with our approach to justice for criminals, and avoids our needing to fine-tune the calculation of the actual damages. Whether you agree with him or not, it was certainly a more comprehensible comment.
Pres. Obama makes a show of choosing his words carefully, perhaps in an effort to appear thoughtful and analytical, rather than visceral, focused, and hard-charging. Unfortunately, his words about the Sony hack are just one more instance where he ends up appearing to be neither.
(After I wrote this piece, but before I posted it, North Korea’s entire Internet went down for several hours. Was this part of the U.S. response? Was it “proportionate”?)
(A separate, equally silly semantic issue is the great debate over whether this was an “act of war.” My goodness, who cares? Why does the question of whether it’s an act of war, a terrorist act, a crime, or the behavior of a spoiled brat have anything to do with what our appropriate response should be?“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people to focus on making numbers understandable. I welcome your feedback and your favorite examples. Follow me on twitter at @RandallBolten.