The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brian Williams is ‘guided by the beauty of our weapons’ in Syria strikes

As dozens of cruise missiles laid waste to a Syrian military airfield late Thursday, MSNBC’s Brian Williams took a moment to wax poetic.

All evening, MSNBC and other news networks had been playing a reel of footage of the assault, which President Trump authorized in retaliation for a chemical attack that killed more than 70 civilians this week.

The footage, provided by the Pentagon, showed several Tomahawk missiles launching from U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea, illuminating the decks of the ships and leaving long trails of smoke in the night sky.

The Department of Defense released video of the U.S. military launching cruise missiles in Syria after President Trump ordered the strike on April 6. (Video: Department of Defense)

It was a sight that seemed to dazzle Williams, who described the images as “beautiful” in a segment on his show, “The 11th Hour.”

“We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean,” Williams said. “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 what is a brief flight over to this airfield,” he added, then asked his guest, “What did they hit?”

The remarks drew backlash on Twitter, where some users seemed disturbed by Williams’s flowery language.

The song Williams quoted is “First We Take Manhattan,” one of Cohen’s best-known tracks. Here’s the line Williams mentioned in context:

I’m guided by a signal in the heavens
I’m guided by this birthmark on my skin
I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

Cohen, who died in November, had described the track as a “terrorist song,” saying he admires extremism in certain forms. As he said of the song in 1988, the year of its release:

There’s something about terrorism that I’ve always admired. The fact that there are no alibis or no compromises. That position is always very attractive. I don’t like it when it’s manifested on the physical plane — I don’t really enjoy the terrorist activities — but Psychic Terrorism. I remember there was a great poem by Irving Layton that I once read, I’ll give you a paraphrase of it. It was ‘well, you guys blow up an occasional airline and kill a few children here and there’, he says. ‘But our terrorists, Jesus, Freud, Marx, Einstein. The whole world is still quaking.

Whether Williams was aware of that background or what he intended when he quoted Cohen is anyone’s guess. But he became a trending topic as coverage of Syria continued late into the night.

Once NBC’s lead anchor, Williams was suspended from the network in 2015 for making false and exaggerated statements about his reporting in Iraq, New Orleans and elsewhere over the course of a decade.

Since returning to a demoted position in fall 2015, he has become a running joke about bad journalistic practice, and he’s continued to receive criticism for what some viewers argue are crude or tone deaf on-air remarks. Last summer, he was accused of racial insensitivity for comparing a speech by President Barack Obama to the late comedian Richard Pryor. He was also blasted for comparing the fatal shootings of 12 police in Dallas last summer to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and speculating that an “urban army” was behind the attack.