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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Why Leaders Don't Say "We Got The Bastard!"*

Sometimes people wonder why leaders aren't more emotional when they announce victory over an enemy.

The thinking is that if the leader were truly engaged, they would be emotionally spirited rather than calm and rational.

Certainly newspaper headlines don't hesitate to express emotion. On the capture of 9/11 terrorist Osama Bin Ladin the New York papers, at least, were very direct: "Rot In Hell" blasted the New York Daily News; "Vengeance at Last" was the New York Post's version.

When it comes to discussing a conflict, especially one with an enemy who is truly evil, a leader actually has to remain very calm. Or else chaos can break loose.

The leader can be more spirited beforehand - to get the people motivated to go to war for the cause - but afterward they have to be careful. A mob mentality can easily spin out of control into irrational vengeance and an unstable social order.

The U.S. confronted a similar situation in World War II, against the ruthless and evil Nazis.

Here is what U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in an address to the people to motivate them in support of the Allied cause. Notice the strength of the language. You can almost hear his voice full of passion at the cause:

"No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it....a nation can have peace with the Nazis only at the price of total surrender....The proposed "new order" is the very opposite of a United States....an unholy alliance of power and pelf to dominate and enslave the human race....As President of the United States....I call upon our people with absolute confidence that our common cause will greatly succeed." (12/29/1940)

After the Germans have surrendered, though, President Truman was careful to keep the language constructive and focused on future positive efforts, not vengeance and hatred:

"The forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations....Our rejoicing is sobered and subdued by a supreme consciousness of the terrible price we have paid to rid the world of Hitler and his evil band....We can repay the debt which we owe to our God, to our dead and to our children only by work—by ceaseless devotion to the responsibilities which lie ahead of us. If I could give you a single watchword for the coming months, that word is—work, work, and more work....We must work to bind up the wounds of a suffering world—to build an abiding peace, a peace rooted in justice and in law."

Leaders have a difficult job to do when it comes to confronting evil. They can never please everyone. But the general pattern of "emotional before, rational after" is a useful construct to follow.

* Disclaimer: I work for the U.S. government but do not represent them here. All opinions my own.

Links Referenced

* Coverage of Bin Laden capture
* President Roosevelt's 1940 address
* President Truman's 1945 speech
* Presidential Speech Archive
* Photo: "Prisoners of war at the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, in April 1945, just before American troops liberated the camp."