Wednesday, October 27, 2004

THE SYNTAX OF DEADLY FORCE. Was the death of Victoria Snelgrove a tragic, unforeseeable accident? Or was it the perfectly predictable consequence of the manner in which Boston police responded to the surging crowd outside Fenway Park last Thursday morning? It all comes down to one little word: than. And the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald have gotten it wrong as often as they've gotten it right.

I'm no weapons expert, but I can understand ordinary English. The problem is that the papers have alternately described the pepper-pellet gun that killed Snelgrove as being "less than lethal" and "less lethal," as though they mean the same thing. Not exactly. Not even close. "Less than lethal" means "nonlethal"; there's really no room for interpretation. "Less lethal" means the opposite: "lethal." Less lethal than an Uzi, for sure, but lethal nevertheless.

So which is it? A website known as describes the pellet gun that was used - the FN 303, manufactured by FN Herstal - as "less lethal." The headline of this press release couldn't be more clear: "FNH USA Extends Less Lethal/FN 303 Training Program For 2004." Another law-enforcement site, Tactical Response Magazine Online, refers to "the FN Herstal 303 less-lethal weapon system." A less savory-sounding site, Sniper Country PX, is selling the 303 for $875.50. Here's the come-on: "The FN 303 is designed to be the premier system for situations requiring less lethal response. Completely dedicated to reduced lethality and liability."

The only logical conclusion is that the FN 303 is lethal, only less so than standard-issue police weapons. Yet the Globe and the Herald have seemingly gone out of their way to obfuscate the situation.

Both papers have used the phrases "less lethal" and "less than lethal" almost interchangeably, but the Globe's headlines have been particularly egregious. Last Friday, the paper ran a headline that said "'Nonlethal' Guns Causing Alarm," with a lead that made a generic reference to "less lethal weapons." On Saturday came this headline: "Nonlethal Weapons Draw Praise, Caution." The story even refers to "so-called less-than-lethal munitions." Uh, no, they're actually not so called.

The Herald has been slightly better about sticking with the phrase "less lethal," but on Monday it ran a headline that said "Protesters Demand Ban on 'Less-Than-Lethal' Guns." Columnist Mike Barnicle referred to "less-than-lethal crowd control weapons" on Tuesday. Columnist Peter Gelzinis gets it right today.

As the extent of police irresponsibility becomes clear, the distinction between "less than lethal" and "less lethal" will be crucial. Today's Globe story adds a lot of details about the alleged actions of Deputy Superintendent Robert O'Toole. The Herald is well worth reading, too. Based on what we now know, it seems that police officers fired into a crowd with weapons that they knew, or should have known, could be deadly.

Yes, this was a tragic accident. But it was also one that was entirely predictable.

CALLING ALL LAWYERS! If I were a lawyer for the Kerry campaign, I would be knocking on the door of the Club for Growth right now, demanding to see the model releases for all the elderly folks in this sleazy ad. A full-page version appears in today's New York Times, and the faces are clearly recognizable. Did these people really agree to let their images be used to sell the club's dubious message? I doubt it.

THREE REASONS WHY THE RED SOX HAVE TO WIN TONIGHT. 1) Tim Wakefield in Game Five. A good guy who helped croak the Yankees. But he had a mediocre season and stunk out the joint in Game One against the Cardinals. 2) Curt Schilling in Game Six. Sure, if he does it again, it will be one of the great sports stories of the year - it already is. But do you really want to take the chance that his stitched-up ankle will hold out for another six innings? 3) Pedro Martínez in Game Seven. Pedro can't pitch in the cold. The long-range forecast for Sunday night: 44 degrees.

Go, D-Lowe!


Jason F.C. Clarke said...

Aw, now why did you have to go and say a thing like that? I was all set, thinking, "we only need to win one of the next four games," and now you've got me all paranoid. Thanks Dan!

Whispers said...

Four reasons not to worry:
Woody Williams, Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan, and Jason Marquis.

Anonymous said...

FYI, the Club for Growth "flu shot" ad (which states a lie) also ran in today's Wall St Journal. Now *there's* a schocker!

RS said...

Nice catch, Dan. What exactly would "less-than-lethal" mean, anyway, as a description of a projectile-launching device? Seems to me any such weapon could never be considered entirely nonlethal.

Brian McFadden said...

"less than lethal" would be something like nets, sticky foam or those sonic crowd dispersal noise machines. The potential for death with those is in the realm of a freak bizarre accident, even with gross negligence.

I'd imagine anything that impacts human bodies with much more force than a fist would have to be designated "less lethal," since even a bean bag or lacrosse ball hit to the sternum at 70 mph could potentially be deadly.

Anonymous said...

Those pepper spray pellet guns are never to be aimed at the heads of persons, always down, and it takes no intelligence to see that they can be lethal or severely damaging if they hit a vulnerable body part. Any police department that does not teach this should be sued.

Anonymous said...

It all depends on what the meaning of "is" - excuse me, of "lethal" - is. To a simple-minded columnist with an ax to grind, "lethal" can (obviously!) only mean one thing: it KILLS. A quick peek at an adequate dictionary ( shows that it can also mean "capable of causing death" or "gravely damaging or destructive". Gee, Dan, by that measure darned near anything could be termed "lethal", including a banana peel or a paring knife. By the same definition you'd like to use, even guns aren't lethal - the vast majority of shooting incidents do not result in death.

Your blurb was captioned appropriately enough, because you certainly did your own level best to torture the "less lethal" syntax. Or are you trying to tell us that you, as a professional writer, are incapable of recognizing the difference?

Anonymous said...

Dan -

I appreciate your willingness to stand up for the elderly "models" in the despicable Club-For-Growth ad. Calling all lawyers, indeed! Model releases, indeed! Sleazy ad, indeed!

BTW, I'm posting this a day later (on Thursday night) after seeing the Bush flip-off video headlining your blog. Perhaps on Friday you'll post a scan of the release YOU obtained from the President, permitting you to publish that "despicable" video as part of your political screed. Sleazy, indeed! Or to paraphrase your own intolerance: Did the President really agree to let his image be used to sell Dan Kennedy's dubious message? I doubt it.

Nice double standard, Dan. Well executed. You couldn't even let 24 hours pass between the time you criticize the "other side's" tactics before you resort to you own similar brand of sleaze which, naturally, you see absolutely nothing wrong with because the end justifies the means.

As an aside - I love the font on your blog. Would you mind telling me its name? Thanks.