Brian Williams refers to this Pentagon video of missiles going to kill people as "beautiful" 3 times in 30 seconds pic.twitter.com/KBb3tP8qHT
— Trevor Timm (@trevortimm) April 7, 2017
Brian Williams is a student of the arts.
We were reminded of this Thursday night as he waxed rhapsodic over the sight of 50 cruise missiles streaking towards Syria, an offensive authorized by President Trump in retaliation for the chemical attack that killed at least 70 civilians this week.
“We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean,” Williams said on his MSNBC show, “11th Hour,” over Pentagon-provided footage of Tomahawk missiles launching from Navy destroyers. “I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’ They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them a brief flight over to this airfield.”
He then went on to ask his guest, “What did they hit?”
First off, Williams might want to work a little harder on his musical exegesis. Leonard Cohen himself described “First We Take Manhattan,” the 1988 track from which Williams’s quote was taken, as an “examination of the mind of an extremist.” The beauty of our weapons was not a harmless delight in Cohen’s eyes, but instead one of several irrational motivations driving a terrorist towards destruction. Our own president tweeted “NO MERCY TO TERRORISTS” not so long ago, so that’s probably not how we want to characterize our own military operations.
But more offputting than Williams’s complete misreading of a well-understood song is the starry-eyed boosterism hiding behind it. This is the sort of mindless championship that is dazzled by displays of power and dismissive of their consequences, that is delighted to see that Something Is Being Done without asking whether it’s being done well or justly, and that reflexively embraces militarism as a sign of strength. It’s not policy analysis or practical consideration, in which one might justifiably debate whether this latest airstrike was the right choice. Rather, it’s a celebration of action for action’s sake — something we should have grown out of over the past year, all things considered.
Presumably those “beautiful” Tomahawk missiles hit real airfields, manned by real people, in a real country where, for better or for worse, our own violent involvement will only deepen. Those fearsome armaments aren’t just fireworks, after all, and our military operations in Syria aren’t just entertainment to be judged on aesthetics alone. With that being the case, the media response should not be one of self-congratulation and awestruck prattle but of actual reporting: of the outcomes of action, reflection on the decisions that led us here and a sober discussion of what to do next.
It’s possible that I’m asking too much from a system primed to celebrate excitement of any kind. Maybe I should lighten up and learn to love the smell of napalm in the morning. That’s the quote, right?