Funny how the news agenda gets tired. Like the quotes. Only a couple of months ago, we were all bracing for Israel’s attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. And for serious pressure on Bashar al-Assad to end his “barbaric campaign”. I quote Susan Rice, La Clinton’s lady at the UN. And now? Well, Bashar lingers in his palace while Iran goes off the boil. Instead, it’s the underpants bomber. Or the super-underpants bomber. Or rather the super-underpants bomber who wasn’t – because it was a sting operation and a CIA man (or a British agent “of Middle East origin”; choose as you wish) posed as a would-be super-underpants bomber to get hold of the super-underpants bomb so it could be taken to pieces by the lads and lasses in Langley, Virginia.
I weary a bit of this stuff. If the CIA and the Brits and the Saudis have really penetrated al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula – or AQAP, as we are now enjoined to call it, although the acronym sounds a bit like an insurance company – all well and good. But the fact that the Saudis originally supported the Taliban and that al-Qa’ida was until recently led by a Saudi and that most of the 9/11 bombers were Saudis and that an awful lot of other al-Qa’ida men are Saudis, does take the gleam offthe cup.
Yet still – with the noble, imperishable exception of Matt Frei on panjandrum Jon Snow’s brilliant Channel 4 news – we take all this stuff with mind-numbing, poker-faced seriousness. We do not question the story. Or the words. Or even the expressions. Let’s start with Rice at the UN, who recently informed us, in reference to Bashar’s “barbaric campaign of violence against the Syrian people”, that – mark these words – “in the United States, our patience is exhausted”. Well, La Clinton looked a little bit exhausted (was it the hair?) when she waded in herself. “World opinion,” she said of the Assad regime, “is not going to stand idly by.”
Haven’t I heard this before? Why yes, I have. Back in 2009, Robert Gates was getting very exhausted with North Korea and its nuclear weapons. And what did he tell us, on 30 May to be exact? “We will not stand idly by” as Pyongyang developed nuclear weapons. Last year, Barrack Obama said America would not “stand idly by” when a tyrant (to whit, Muammar Gaddafi) “tells his people there will be no mercy”. Earlier this year, we had the German Foreign Minister telling his egregious Israeli opposite number, Avigdor Lieberman, that Germany “will not stand idly by” if Israel’s right to exist is questioned. And if you think the phrase is reserved only for the powerful, a certain N. Clegg announced just 18 months ago that the Government would not “stand idly by” if banks didn’t rein in bonuses. Clegg is in good company. Homer used the expression in The Simpsons: “I will not stand idly by and watch you feed a hungry dog.”
But none of us journos ever point out what a load of old codswallop this is. We report it at face value, as if the phrases are new, the indignation real, the drama exploding in front of us. We simply do not say or report that “not standing idly by” and patience being “exhausted” are among the greatest clichés of the political world.
Why do we not return to some original sources? Which, being an assiduous reader of mid-20th century history, I shall now do. And I’m afraid we’ve got to go back to That Wretched Bavarian Corporal (born Braunau on the river Inn, 20 April 1889) who was pretty adept at issuing threats and – unlike latter-day politicians – had a disturbing habit of meaning exactly what he said.
And so here he is, Adolf Hitler addressing his “volk” on 26 September 1938. He had just met Neville Chamberlain, but was very angry at the Czech Prime Minister Edvard Benes for not handing over the German-majority Sudetenland to the Nazis. And what did Hitler say?
“I am no longer willing to stand idly by.” And – wait for it – “our patience is exhausted”. As an admirer of William Shirer, I might also quote Hitler in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Nazi troops are pouring into Austria. It’s the Anschluss, the takeover of democratic Austria and its incorporation into the German Reich. And then, in his speech at Koenigsberg on 25 March 1938, Hitler says: “Not as tyrants have we come, but as liberators.” And I am reminded of George W Bush’s predecessor in the list of invaders of Iraq, General Stanley Maude, who told Iraqis in 1917 that “our armies do not come into your cities and lands… as enemies, but as liberators”. Which is more or less what Bush and his acolytes said in 2003.
But hold on. Even Winston Churchill told the Empire on 31 May 1942 that Britain never reneged on its guarantee that it would “not stand by idly and see Poland trampled”. He abandoned that guarantee at Yalta. But is there, I sometimes wonder, a ghostly quotation machine that runs from the British Empire via Hitler to La Clinton and Homer Simpson and the rest? Have words no more morality? Don’t we need to source this guff?
I’ve no doubt that the “idly by” quotation originates with Leviticus 19:16 – “Do not stand idly by when your neighbour bleeds” – but should we not remind our readers and viewers that this is the biblical reference point, however used or misused by criminals, mountebanks and heroes? Truly, my patience is exhausted.
Robert Fisk, The Independent