Passive Gunfire

In Mark Bowden’s account of the SEAL Team Six mission that killed Osama bin Laden, he uses a very clever form of the old passive-voice-for-government-violence trick.

The passive voice, for those who need a refresher, is a way of organizing a sentence that downplays the actor and emphasizes that which is acted on. For instance, in the classic passive sentence “Mistakes were made,” the emphasis is on the mistakes. But who made them?

I noted in “The Voice of Tyranny” that the passive voice is especially useful for diffusing responsibility for state violence, as in “the protestor was struck in the head.”

In his account of the SEAL raid on bin Laden’s Abottabad compound, Bowden uses the active voice when the SEALs shoot bin Laden or anyone who is clearly an enemy combatant, but he uses the passive voice every time the SEALS put a bullet in a woman or anyone who might be considered an innocent bystander.

Example #1:

Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed sprayed a wild burst of AK-47 rounds at the SEALs, who returned fire and killed him. His wife, behind him, was hit in the shoulder.

They shot the attacker, Ibrahim, but his noncombatant wife merely was hit.

Example #2:

Abrar Ahmed … was in a first-floor bedroom with his wife Bushra. Both were shot dead.

Example #3:

The SEAL knocked [bin Laden’s wife Amal] aside as his teammates stood over the mortally wounded bin Laden and fired killing shots into his chest.… Amal had been shot in the leg.

The SEALs mercifully knocked Amal aside before heroically killing the archvillain, but somewhere in all that scuffle, Lady bin Laden had been shot in the leg. You might wonder if it was Osama himself who shot her by accident in the chaos, but of course, he was unarmed the whole time.

In this way, Bowden emphasizes the SEALs’ responsibility for their heroic violence, and yet washes them clean of responsibility for any civilian casualties.

I’m not defending bin Laden here or attacking the SEALs who got him. I’m just pointing out how Mark Bowden switches between active and passive to give credit for some actions and obscure responsibility for others.

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