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Bright lines and the search for certainty

By Ruth Walker / December 21, 2005



I surmise that I'm not the only one hoping for some clarity on United States policies regarding detainees in Iraq or the war on terror.

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When I punched the phrase "bright line" along with the word "torture," into Google, I got 46,100 hits. For a very rough gauge of public interest in a given subject, one can do worse than that.

"Bright lines," as in "bright-line rule," meaning a clear, unambiguous standard, are in demand in other contexts as well. The phrase came up in the matter of Kelo v. New London. That's the case wherein the US Supreme Court ruled that local governments may use the right of eminent domain to take private property, including family homes, for local economic development, as distinct from specific needs like roads or schools.

In his opinion in the case, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, "Petitioners' proposal that the Court adopt a new bright-line rule that economic development does not qualify as a public use is supported by neither precedent nor logic."

"Bright line" seems to have a background as a legal colloquialism. In an entry in the blog Language Log, Mark Liberman traces the term back to an earlier Supreme Court opinion, one written by Felix Frankfurter in 1949, and speculates that the locution goes back even earlier.

But didn't the "bright line" used to be a solid black line - as contrasted with the "thin gray line" of subtlety, nuance, and (to be candid) creatively exploited ambiguity?

Nathan Newman, a lawyer, activist, and blogger, has another perspective: seeking a "bright line" on torture is one of the ways liberals tend to wimp out. "This focus on 'bright line' issues like torture and the death penalty by liberals seems to reflect a lack of comfort in liberal moral argumentation that involves 'grey' zones," he writes.

Thus, he suggests, some liberals rail against the death penalty, imposed on relatively few, instead of taking on the more complex question of why so many Americans are incarcerated; or they get exercised about the treatment of detainees as a stand-in for a discussion on the wisdom of going to war in Iraq in the first place.

Speaking of "grey" - or "gray," as Monitor style rules require me to write when I'm not quoting a published source: Thin gray lines are still being drawn - and smudged. And crossed. The online magazine Digital Web published an article on plagiarism in the age of the Internet: "A thin gray line is drawn on the battlefield of inspiration versus theft - a line which is crossed every day, on and off the net."

Similarly, the world of computer hackers - black hats and white hats - seems also to include a population of "gray hats," cowboys of cyberspace who ride along what CNET News has called a "thin gray line." On one side are security experts in the service of corporate or government employers; on the other are those who would bring those employers' systems down. In the middle are those who like to poke around in other people's systems just to see what they can find.

The CNET News report suggests that there are more gray hats than you might think, but they've been forced to one side or another as a result of more stringent copyright law and greater litigiousness on the part of companies.

The "gray hat cowboys" are being fenced in, in other words. In an example of what I think of as conceptual geography, we use metaphors of physical space to organize our understanding of ideologies or schools of thought. It's something we do so readily that we scarcely realize it: "His politics are way off to the left," or "She has taken the opposite side of that issue." We draw lines on this imaginary landscape. Sometimes we seek to discourage someone from even traveling in a given direction, as in the phrase, "Don't go there," often used to shut down a certain line of discussion.

I'm still wondering, though, why "bright" lines. The adjective suggests those fluorescent highlighters that leave a line not only bright - yellow or chartreuse or whatever - but broad.

I'm pretty sure those weren't around in Justice Frankfurter's day. But we live in a more colorful world now. To go back to the cartographic conventions of solid black lines and dotted gray ones would be just too, well, black and white.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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