Yesterday Dan Drezner said it was embarrassing that US Attorney General Jeff Sessions called illegal aliens “filth.” Today Drezner apologized, because while the word “filth” was in prepared remarks, Sessions didn’t say it, and because even in the prepared remarks, “The context is clear: Sessions was going to use ‘filth’ to describe MS-13 and drug cartels, not all illegal immigrants crossing the border.”
While I admire Drezner’s forthrightness in admitting a mistake I think he has made another one. He should make only the first half of this apology, because, in fact, the context is not clear—as, I can only suspect, is indicated by Sessions’s decision not to say the word aloud.
Here is the disputed part of Sessions’s prepared remarks.
Here, along our nation’s southwest border, is ground zero in this fight. Here, under the Arizona sun, ranchers work the land to make an honest living, and law-abiding citizens seek to provide for their families.
But it is also here, along this border, that transnational gangs like MS-13 and international cartels flood our country with drugs and leave death and violence in their wake. And it is here that criminal aliens and the coyotes and the document-forgers seek to overthrow our system of lawful immigration.
Let’s stop here for a minute. When we talk about MS-13 and the cartels, what do we mean? We mean criminal organizations that turn cities and suburbs into warzones, that rape and kill innocent citizens and who profit by smuggling poison and other human beings across our borders. Depravity and violence are their calling cards, including brutal machete attacks and beheadings.
It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth.
Note the sentence I have placed in bold. It follows the sentence about the gangs and cartels. It refers to a class of persons other than the cartels: we know that because it begins with “And.” The class of persons to whom it refers is “criminal aliens and the coyotes and the document-forgers seek to overthrow our system of lawful immigration”. That class seems to me clearly to be the class of people whom Drezner yesterday called ordinary “illegal immigrants”—not the cartels.
Referring to the much larger class of people who cross the border unlawfully in the middle of a set of sentences about much greater criminals, and then declaring an intent to stop such “filth,” creates an ambiguity as to whether the filth refers only to the cartels, or to the other immigrants referenced in the passage.
It is possible that such ambiguity is unintended. I do not know who writes Sessions’s speeches, much less what is in their minds.
I suspect, though I cannot know, the ambiguity, and its inflammatory effect, was clear to Sessions, which is why he omitted the word “filth” in speaking.
As an exercise for the reader, I will suggest working on a proposed comparison: the ambiguity in Sessions’s prepared remarks sounds similar to this one:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
The work of Sessions’s speechwriter echoes this older, but still well remembered, elision between “good people” and those “bringing crime.”