That would be stretching it

中国日报网 2013-02-26 10:31



That would be stretching it

Reader question:

Please explain this sentence: “He’s a good player, but to say he’s ‘world class” would be stretching it.”

Stretching what?

My comments:

Stretching the point, that is, the view point.

To paraphrase: The view point that he is a good player is valid, but to say that he is “world class” would be a stretch, an exaggeration. In other words, it would be inappropriate to call him “world class”. He is not.

“Stretch” is the word to analyze here. If you stretch a rope, you pull it to make it longer. If you stretch your arms and legs, you loosen up before doing more strenuous exercises, such as running or playing basketball or mountain climbing or what have you.

By extension, you can stretch a rule, i.e. allowing something that would not normally be allowed by a ruler or limit. For example, you ask for leaving work early and your boss may say: “I’ll stretch the rules and let you leave early today, but just this once. Not again.”

That means you cannot be doing this again and again – or you will be stretching your boss’s patience to the limit and even beyond.

Likewise, you can stretch the truth by exaggerating it, by making something sound bigger or better than it really is. To say, for example, that Mount Everest is the highest mountain on earth is correct. To say it is 10,000 meters tall will be stretching it – exaggerating the truth (Mount Everest is, in fact, 8,848 meters high).

Then therefore you understand that by “stretching it”, as is the case in the top example, you are stretching a view point that’s just been put about. Ding Junhui is a world class snooker player, for example, but I would be stretching it quite a bit to suggest that he is the best in the world.

Another example. I’ve read somewhere someone talking about the Chinese Century Egg as a traditional delicacy, saying, something like: It’s a Chinese delicacy, though delicacy might be stretching it.

Point taken. The Century Egg, like the Shaoxing Tofu, stinks. Many love but it’s not exactly delicious in the way we talk about honey, chocolate cake or vanilla ice cream as delicious.

Alright, here are media examples of stretching a point:

1. Confirmation of the death of CIA operative Johnny “Mike” Spann in the Mazar-e-Sharif prison uprising raises the profile of the agency’s Special Activities Division, which has been deployed in the campaign in Afghanistan since late September, U.S. officials say.

The special activities agents are trained in killing and military arts. One U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while the CIA has not engaged in assassinations for decades, it does train its operatives, or spies, in paramilitary skills.

All recruits on the agency’s 5,000-person spy staff are given a training and orientation course in basic military skills. The same official said, however, that there are operatives “in certain branches [including SA] who are more militaristic ... who can slit your throat in 12 different ways and would be only too willing to do so.” Most of the training takes place at Camp Peary, an Army camp near Williamsburg, Va., that serves as the CIA’s Special Training Center, and Harvey Point, N.C., a facility where operatives train for amphibious operations.

“They have been slogging in the mud like the special operations guys,” said another official.

Why does the CIA offer such training if it doesn’t engage in assassination? “Self-defense,” said one official, noting that the U.S. ban on assassination covers only the killing of political leaders during peacetime, not terrorists or other combatants. Among the operations the S.A. teams are trained in: sabotage, personnel and material recovery, kidnapping, bomb damage assessment, counterterrorist operations and hostage rescues overseas.

Intelligence historian Jeffrey T. Richelson says the S.A. has covered a variety of missions. The group, which recently was reorganized, has had about 200 officers, divided among several groups: the Special Operations Group; the Foreign Training Group, which trains foreign police and intelligence officers; the Propaganda and Political Action Group, which handles disinformation; the Computer Operations Group, which handles information warfare; and the Proprietary Management Staff, which manages whatever companies the CIA sets up as covers for the S.A.

Many of the operatives are recruited from the ranks of retired military officers, including Delta Force and SEAL Team personnel, some of whom worked previously with the S.A. on overseas missions.

Despite the broad training the agents receive, Richelson says, S.A. agents are not rogue operatives a la James Bond. “That would be stretching it quite a bit,” he said, noting the CIA puts a significant number of restrictions on its officers.

- CIA operatives a shadowy war force,, October 24, 2003.

2. The City of Federal Way recently took in 250 new pets.

Well, pets might be stretching it. But Mayor Skip Priest did welcome in 250 baby Coho salmon, which will be raised by city staff as part of an educational program on stormwater and healthy creeks.

Water quality specialist Hollie Shilley used a Department of Ecology grant to buy the aquarium and equipment, and the salmon eggs came from the Soos Creek Hatchery last month. The fish will be on display at City Hall until they reach the fry stage and are big enough to live on their own. Once they’re ready to leave their adopted home, the fish will be released into Hylebos Creek this spring.

According to a city news release, the fish are meant to be an outreach device to help educate citizens about the importance of keeping local streams and lakes healthy.

“These 250 little fry are ambassadors to the public, reminding us of the importance of protecting our environment,” Priest said in the release. “Salmon are an important part of Federal Way. They live in our local streams like Hylebos Creek and are an indicator of the health of our environment.”

- City adopts 250 salmon,, February 11, 2011.

3. In thinking about drones strikes and targeted killings, it can be instructive to picture them hitting people you know, either deliberately or as collateral damage. Doing so may not even be much of a stretch, nor should it be. (It’s already the case for people living in parts of Pakistan and Yemen.) Last week, I moderated a live chat on the ethics of drone warfare with Michael Walzer, the author of “Just and Unjust Wars”; Jeff McMahan, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers, who has also written about just-war theory; and The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who is a master of the subject. The discussion took some interesting turns, touching on the idea of a secret committee that the President would be asked to check with before killing an American and the question of whether China would ever assert the right to call in a drone strike on a dissident living in San Francisco. After Walzer and McMahan suggested some criteria for strikes—criminality, risk of American lives—I asked them this:

Doesn’t a journalist working abroad who is about to release classified information about a war crime—thus committing a crime—that will provoke retribution or a break with allies—endangering Americans—fit this definition of a target?

Walzer didn’t initially think that it did. The danger to Americans, he said, had “to come directly not indirectly from the target before he can be a target.” McMahan had a different view:

If the release of classified information really would seriously endanger the lives of innocent people and the only way to prevent the release of the information was to kill the journalist, then the journalist would be liable to attack. But the evidential standards in such a case would be very high and would be unlikely to be satisfiable in practice.

“So Michael wouldn’t kill the journalist but Jeff just might…” I posted, and the chat moved on. But the question of the journalist is worth dwelling on, because it gets at some of the fundamental problems with the targeted-killing program. Who is “dangerous”? And who decides? A Justice Department white paper laying out the circumstances in which the President can kill Americans talks not only about Al Qaeda but also about “associated forces,” not clearly defined. Michael Crowley, of Time, pointed out that Jeh Johnson, the former Pentagon general counsel, has said that “Our enemy does not include anyone solely in the category of activist, journalist, or propagandist,” and I don't mean to say that the current Administration has adopted the logic that it does, though that “solely” can do a lot of work. The vagueness could easily increase with the passage of time, as targeted killings shift from a policy to a precedent. The logical chain, as illustrated in our chat, can move very quickly.

I wrote to McMahan afterward to follow up; he noted that chats are not exactly conducive to conveying qualifications. He also wrote,

First, the claim that it could in principle be permissible to kill a journalist if that were the only way to prevent him or her from releasing information that would result in the deaths of innocent people was a claim about what’s in principle possible but I think it has almost no practical relevance. Such cases are so unlikely to arise that they’re hardly worth taking seriously. Journalists are seldom in possession of information that, if published, will result in innocent people being killed. And even if a journalist were to have such information and be tempted to release it, there would almost certainly be other ways than killing of preventing the release.

McMahan offered a scenario that he thought would fit: a hypothetical village occupied by Nazis, whose inhabitants must decide whether to kill “a Quisling journalist” who is about to reveal that some of their neighbors are secretly Jewish. (A somewhat different circumstance, since a secret is being delivered to the governing power rather than suppressed by it.) “But there are almost never real cases of this sort,” McMahan added, which is why the “only reasonable rule,” in terms of law and policy, if not ethics, was that journalists were protected from attack. (Both he and Walzer distinguished between the ethical, legal, and political issues.)

That is not entirely reassuring. Whatever one thinks about the actual effect that journalists have, governments, including the Obama Administration, routinely claim that various pieces of information—from the location of a secret prison to a drone strike to any number of things in the Wikileaks files—simply can’t be published for reasons of national security. It is not an exotic scenario. (A government may also go after sources; see Jane Mayer on the Thomas Drake case.) Journalists know that there are circumstances in which information puts lives at risk—that’s one reason it’s a hard job. The question I posed was a circumstance that even the most careful journalist could imagine being in: revealing not troop movements or nuclear codes but a war crime. Journalists contend with assertions that publishing pictures of American wrongdoing leads to retribution, and even aids terrorists. (Abu Ghraib comes to mind.) In that case, the obvious answer is that, once a war crime has been committed, the only defense that we have is that we are as outraged as anyone, and that it’s best that the American press, rather some Al Qaeda Web site, show that it can be trusted to tell the truth.

But governments don’t always see it that way. There is the added risk of governments equating political danger to themselves and their policies (some of which they may be genuinely convinced will save lives) with actual danger to the country. To certain politicians, the prospect of a scandal can be as scary as that of an American tourist being caught up by a mob.

And as for McMahan's mention of “other ways than killing of preventing the release”—would we be asked to feel better about things like prior restraint and locking up journalists? (Another practical question: How would the neighbors of targets, say, know to avoid getting too close and becoming collateral damage?)

Another question that came up during our chat seems relevant: There has been a good deal of outrage about the idea that the President can order Americans killed, but why are Americans so special? Do their lives deserve different consideration? Both Walzer and McMahan said that they do not and, of course, in a moral sense that is true. But what rightly bothers people about the extrajudicial killing of Americans is the sense that the law has been broken and Constitution abused.

Beyond that, there is a suspicion that our political processes have been compromised, and could be interfered with. When a President dismisses due process in order to kill an American, he has two targets. He is setting up circumstances in which, by denying Americans redress, declaring enemies, creating fear, and closing what should be open deliberations, he could shape political, and even electoral, outcomes—vote-rigging by drone.

These concerns are magnified in the case of journalists, whose job it is to provide a check to the government. The target-killing program, as even many of its advocates acknowledge, suffers from a lack of transparency. Both McMahan and Walzer thought that a reasonable model would be secrecy before the strike and as much accountability as possible afterward. But how would that work? At what point does secrecy stop being a necessary operational constraint and become the point of all this? Targeted killings are offered as moral exigencies; how quickly do they become tools of politics?

- Can a President Use Drones Against Journalists? By Amy Davidson,, February 20, 2013.




About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.



Large shoes to fill?

Career hits a bump?

Obama hit with friendly fire

No coat tails to ride on?

No stage fright?

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)

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