Eric R. Terzuolo
International affairs scholar and practitioner
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When everything is an ‘outrage’ is anything truly outrageous?

Why did Pres. Biden use language usually reserved for adversaries in reaction to Israel's mistaken killing of food aid workers?
US President Joe Biden speaks at an event in Raleigh, North Carolina on March 26, 2024. (AP/Matt Kelley, File)
US President Joe Biden speaks at an event in Raleigh, North Carolina on March 26, 2024. (AP/Matt Kelley, File)

Words matter. Profoundly. After the internationally acclaimed Christ Stopped at Eboli, an account of his internal exile under the Mussolini regime, the Italian anti-Fascist and social critic Carlo Levi published a dramatic account of agricultural life in Sicily called Words are Stones (1955). His title stood on its head an Italian proverb that “words are not stones,” intended to minimize the power of words to hurt and injure. Levi’s book title is now better known in Italy than the proverb.

True, in recent times words have been somewhat devalued. Think of the discussion eight years ago on whether to take the words of the then-Republican presidential candidate seriously or literally. The obvious answer was “both.” But we seem to have accepted and, in a sense, metabolized this potentially dangerous distinction.

Nonetheless, the words of political and governmental leaders, of people chosen to represent our citizenry, require our attention. When President Biden on April 2 chose and highlighted the word “outraged” to characterize his reaction to the death of World Central Kitchen volunteers in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza, I felt like one of Levi’s word stones had struck me in the head. “Outrage,” “outraged,” and “outrageous” are words of great weight in the parlance of diplomacy, to which I dedicated over twenty years of my life. In that vocation, one learns to choose and weigh their words with great care and intentionality.

I do not wish to minimize the tragedy of the deaths of people who were courageously giving of themselves in the middle of a war. (I know something about being a civilian working in a war zone.) But “outrage” is something the US historically has expressed at the actions of our adversaries. The US government has often distanced itself and disagreed with actions by even our closest allies, including Israel. (The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon is an example.) But public expressions of “outrage” directed at a long-time ally, alongside very significant US military sales to the same ally, struck me as something rather new.

A search on the White House website for recent references to outrage is quite instructive. Although he did not use the specific word, there was palpable outrage in the President’s lengthy October 10, 2024 remarks on the Hamas attack on Israel, which he termed ”terrorism,” “an act of sheer evil,” “brutality … bloodthirstiness.” Vice President Harris on October 11 declared herself “completely outraged by . . . extreme acts of terrorism that must be condemned in no uncertain terms.”

The list of things that have elicited White House outrage or been deemed outrageous in recent months is in fact quite long. On February 16, for example, President Biden stated that he was “outraged” at reports (later confirmed) of Aleksey Navalny’s death. Appearing with German Chancellor Scholz on February 9, the President had said that failure by the US Congress to support Ukraine would be “outrageous” and “close to criminal neglect.” A wide range of other events and phenomena have earned comparable terms of opprobrium, including gender-based violence, lack of trust between law enforcement and the communities it serves, and an Alabama court’s decision to limit access to fertility treatments. Both international and domestic political adversaries can cause outrage.

Looking at the record, however, reminded me that I perhaps had overestimated the newness of the President’s expressed “outrage” at Israel. That door had been open for a while. Just ten days after the Hamas attack, Biden had reacted with outrage to the explosion at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in a way that clearly left open the possibility of Israeli responsibility. (Even Human Rights Watch, highly critical of Israel, ultimately would admit that responsibility likely lay on the Palestinian side.) What was widely described in early March as a sharp or stern rebuke to Israel from Vice President Harris regarding the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and Senate Majority Leader Schumer’s call for early elections in Israel “once the war starts to wind down,” clearly signaled a situation in which verbal escalation against Israeli actions and/or policies was likely.

President Biden’s expression of outrage over an action for which Israel immediately accepted responsibility and undertook investigation is something that needs to be taken both seriously and literally. Two main interpretations of this escalation suggest themselves:

  1. The Biden Administration is actually moving toward a significant concrete change in the extent of and conditions for its support to Israel. The US has a long history of difficulty in leveraging its assistance to Israel to elicit policy changes, especially where Israel has seen existential interests at stake. US patience was perhaps bound to run out, and stress is running particularly high at this point.
  2. The verbal escalation is only that, presumably driven by fear of erosion of support for Biden and the Democrats among younger voters and voters of Arab-American extraction. The vote in the April 2 Wisconsin Democratic primary no doubt will heighten those fears.

It is by no means clear that the White House will be able to move Israeli policy as far as it would like. As is typical in US foreign policy, we’re seeing an excessive personalization of responsibility, putting the blame on Netanyahu and a couple of his cabinet ministers, and assuming that the bulk of Israelis are “with us.” Early elections are not easy to call, and even opponents of Netanyahu could worry about early elections in wartime.

In the US, it is not clear that declarations of outrage will have sufficient effect on potentially defecting Democratic voters. Also, declaring one’s outrage too frequently arguably can lead to devaluation, making statements of outrage less impactful as time goes on. If you’re outraged at everything, it just becomes the default setting.

About the Author
Eric Terzuolo is an international affairs scholar and practitioner based in Washington, DC. Among his assignments as a US Foreign Service officer, he served at the US embassies in Beirut and Damascus (1983-84) and represented the United States at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (2001-03). He has taught international relations at universities in the US and Europe and published widely, including in the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the National Interest, and The Hill.