Conviction, Not Recompense
Whatever sentence the court hands down on May 30, the conviction last month of Charles G. Taylor, former president of Liberia, on charges of crimes against humanity shows the importance of the United Nations’ international tribunal structure. The courts can and do pursue those responsible for genocide and other mass violence. This is progress. The verdict is also unique in that, while leading members of other nations have been charged and tried, Mr. Taylor is the first head of state since World War II to be convicted of war crimes. This trial has focused world attention on his crimes, ensuring them a place in history’s annals of human cruelty. The best outcome of the trial process would be to deter other tyrants.
But the process also highlights the current limitations of the courts. First, justice has been anything but swift. The rebel atrocities in Sierra Leone, financed and abetted by Mr. Taylor, took place in the 1990s, but his trial did not begin until 2006, leaving victims to languish. Second, court expenses have piled up for others to pay. Mr. Taylor’s fortune, built from the sale of West African diamonds and allegedly used to buy weapons and fighters, is missing. It might have defrayed trial costs and assisted his victims.
Third, the court has no alternative means by which to compensate victims. Some 50,000 people died in the war in Sierra Leone, but thousands more live on, impoverished in a country decimated by war. Men, women and children, left mutilated by rebel forces, must endure lifelong hardship. Through having their case heard by the world’s highest courts, the victims have experienced a measure of justice. Still, the contrast is haunting: Mr. Taylor, spared in these courts from the death penalty, will likely spend his remaining years well fed and sheltered in a British prison. His victimized neighbors, by contrast, can expect no comparable food, shelter or care.
Hopefully, This Too Shall Pass
Recently in the Style section of The Washington Post (4/18), those who love precise use of the English language were grievously impacted by the news that the adverb hopefully has transitioned. It happened with the blessing of the Associated Press, moving from an adverb (“I prayed hopefully for a cure”) to a pseudo-verb in a mini-sentence (“Hopefully I’ll be cured at Lourdes”). Loyal defenders of the active verb—“I hope I’ll survive this”—like disciples of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which ruled in 1959 that to say, “Hopefully I’ll leave on the plane” is to talk nonsense, were crushed. Embarrassed, an AP editor confessed, “You just can’t fight it.”
Supporters of changes like this argue that the corruption of words’ previous meanings is as irresistible as an avalanche in the Alps. New words and meanings roll in, infiltrate common speech and, no matter how vulgar, nest and breed. Others corrupt the vocabulary of television anchors and politicians. Thus to impact, as a verb, once meant “to smash two things together,” like cars in a junkyard press; but now “Obama’s speech impacted the audience” means they were impressed by it. Incredible meant “not to be believed.” Now it competes with OMG as a meaningless interjection. Her dance, his jump shot, the snow storm are all incredible. It means no more than “Cool!”. Hopefully this whole mess will transition and we can disimpact the damage it has done.
Publish and Perish?
Are book publishers a dying breed? The alarm that greeted the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into the price-fixing scheme of five major publishers would seem to indicate the sky is falling, at least for those of us who make a living worrying over words. The D.O.J. cited the publishers for colluding with Apple Inc. to raise the prices of electronic books. The publishers’ alleged action was intended to counter the growing dominance of Amazon, the behemoth online retailer, which is determined to control the cost of digital books and extend the market share of its Kindle e-reader.
The publishers have reason for concern. If Amazon drives down the prices of digital books, as it is expected to do, publishing houses would make less money on each title, leaving them less to invest in promising young authors or feats of reporting like those of, say, Robert Caro, the tireless biographer of Lyndon Johnson. Apple may have drawn the government’s attention, but Amazon deserves scrutiny too. The retailer’s control of a vast swath of the digital marketplace threatens more than just the book industry.
Yet book publishers also need to rethink their business model. Setting higher prices for digital books is a shortsighted solution to a long-term problem. Publishers should focus on the benefits of e-readers and try to capitalize upon them. These devices have made it easier, and more affordable, for the public to access books. Creating a culture of readers in a media-saturated landscape is no small accomplishment. Publishers need to find new ways to market content to an audience as hungry as ever for quality material.