Zacarias Moussaoui, the Mr Bean of Al-Quaeda, has been sentenced to life imprisonment, with no chance of parole. Judge Leonie Brinkema told Moussaoui: "You came here to be a martyr in a great big bang of glory, but to paraphrase the poet TS Eliot, instead you will die with a whimper."
This is an interesting choice of words. Not the quotation itself - that's pretty obvious. It's the linguistic furniture that's peculiar. She could simply have said that Moussaoui would end, not with a bang, but a whimper. Many people know the expression, even if they don't know where it comes from. Even those who didn't know the phrase beforehand must surely be able to understand what she's getting at. Not bang - whimper. Capisce?
But Judge Leonie, being a fine, upstanding woman, did what all good quoters should do, and attributed her reference. In case anybody might think that Judge Brinkema has literary talents that match her jurisprudential aptitudes, she notes that it's a line by Eliot.
Hang on, though - what if someone out there doesn't know who TS Eliot is? Better flag up the fact that it's "the poet TS Eliot" (rather than the actuary or the welder). Presumably, then, this is for the benefit of people who hadn't heard of TS Eliot before - otherwise the job title would be extraneous. And, if this is the first time they've heard of the poet TS Eliot, they can't have any idea whether he's a good, bad or could-do-better versifier. And why leave it there? Why not remind them that it's from 'The Hollow Men'? Tell them the year it was written, and who the publisher was? Give a brief summary of ol' Tom's works and attempt to define his place within the Modernist pantheon? With specific reference to Ezra bloody Pound?
And, in any case, what effect does all this have? If a judge alerts a criminal to the fact that his fate can be encapsulated in a few words from a poet, does this make him feel better or worse? What will the 9/11 relatives think? "I really wanted to see the bastard fry, but at least his sentence has been endorsed by a Nobel Prize-winning poet." I have this image of crims trundling into Shawshank, getting the bug powder and the hosing down, the Bible talk from the governor, and all the while whispering to each other:
"Who d'ya get?"
"I got the poet Walt Whitman."
"That faggot! I got the poet John Milton. What about you, fatso?"
"Oh, I got the poet Dylan Thomas."
"Yeah? What line?"
"Something about not goin' gentle into no good night."
"Uh-oh. Been nice knowin' ya, fatso."
Ah, what the hell? I bet she Googled it.