Speaking Out of (The Red) Line

Ruminations about the Israeli prime minister's doodles at the UN last week

Benjamin Netanyahu managed to confuse scientists and political experts alike with his "show and tell" drawing routine at the United Nations last week. They are still trying to understand what he was getting at, in terms of the current quantities and enrichment levels of uranium, and Tehran's timetable - and that of a possible subsequent Israeli attack. Meanwhile, web-jesters had a field day.

Netanyahu's drawing exercise even sparked a caption contest by The New Yorker, which declared the winner to be: "We cannot let Iran acquire Christmas tree ornaments!" In my opinion, however, the best entry was "You must never fill the bong past this line."

One has to admit that after all has been drawn (and quartered ), the whole story of Bibi and the bomb at the UN boiled down to one, significant, line. Not just any line, described by Euclid as "breadthless length," and not a line of verse (or worse ). Not even a bottom line. Nor are we talking about a "deadline" - a journalistic concept whose strict observance constitutes the raison d'etre of print journalism, which is on its way to extinction with the advent of online journalism that knows no deadlines. We are talking here about a red line.

Red is of the "color at the end of the spectrum next to orange and opposite violet, as of blood, fire, or rubies" (OED ). It can be good and enticing (cf., "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips' red"; Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 ), or it can be bad and scary (as in the case of my bank account, constantly in the red ). And it can be both, as in the case of Red Riding Hood.

But more than anything else the color in question denotes clear and present danger. We have a red button (which when pressed can sound the alarm or launch a nuclear missile ); a red phone, or telephone line (over which the President informs the Chairman - or vice versa - that someone has pushed the red button by mistake ); and a red light (which means stop, although there are those who notoriously take chances and run it). Plus there was the Red Menace or Red Scare of the Cold War years; the saying "better dead than red" (at least in some Western eyes ); and "red sky at morning," which means there's a stormy sea out there.

Mathematicians have a "four color map theorem," which Wikipedia explains thus: "Given any separation of a plane into contiguous regions, producing a figure called a map, no more than four colors are required to color the regions of the map so that no two adjacent regions have the same color." However, mapmakers and politicians can actually make do with three, with borders between two adjacent countries marked in black (the color of death ) or red (meaning, "Border, beware!" ). And indeed, the OED defines "redline" (one word, a noun ) as "a boundary or limit which should not be crossed."

The red line has served as a metaphor in geopolitics and military history since the Crimean War, during which the Russian Empire fought an alliance of three other empires (the English, the French and the Ottoman ) and one kingdom (Sardinia ). In the battle of Balaclava, on October 25, 1854, the Russian cavalry was attacking the allies' supply base, and the sole force that lay between the attackers and the disorganized and vulnerable British camp was the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders Regiment, in red coats, which formed a line that was two-deep and whose firepower forced the enemy cavalry to withdraw. The Times correspondent on the scene, William H. Russell, wrote that he could see nothing between the charging Russians and the British base of operations at Balaclava except the "thin red streak tipped with a line of steel" of the 93rd.

In 1892 Rudyard Kipling wrote one of his "Barrack-Room Ballads," entitled "Tommy," which is a monologue of a soldier shunned and marginalized in times of peace, but sought after and revered in times of war: "... Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Tommy, 'ow's yer soul' / But it's 'Thin red line of 'eroes' when the drums begin to roll."

The "thin red line" has become an English figure of speech for any thinly spread military unit holding firm against attack. It is also the title of a 1962 James Jones novel about a World War II battle and of the movie based on that book, which was made by Terrence Malick in 1998.

Not that this was the line Netanyahu was thinking about when he was working on his UN speech. Nor did he need to go that far back in time and space. Indeed, the metaphor of a "red line" was waiting for him, ready for recycling, in the recent history of the Middle East: The language columnist of The Boston Globe, Ben Zimmer, told Voice of America that kav adom - the Hebrew equivalent of "red line" - was coined in 1975 by then-Israeli Foreign Minister Yigal Allon.

My sources (whose identities I cannot divulge ) say the Hebrew term dates back to 1976, and was first used by then-Prine Minister Yitzhak Rabin: "There was much talk during that period of a metaphorical 'red line.' Although it was not marked out on any map when the Syrian army first entered Lebanon, we later made it clear that we meant a line running directly from east of Sidon to the Lebanese-Syrian border. That line has not been crossed by Syrian troops to this very day." (The Rabin Memoirs, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979 ).

Rabin repeated the phrase in the same context in 1993, following Hezbollah attacks from Lebanon that caused the death of nine Israeli soldiers in two ambushes. The Times' Michael Parks wrote on August 21 of that year, under the headline "Rabin Refrains from Counterattack in Lebanon": "'The government must come to the conclusion that there is no value to the agreements reached [on Lebanon ] with Syria,' said Benjamin Netanyahu, chairman of the opposition Likud Party." Parks added: "Rabin had also warned Hezbollah against transgressing the limits for conflict. 'The moment that red line is passed, as we have said, it will not be allowed to go unnoticed,' he told Israel Radio. But the 'red line' is the security of Israel's northern border settlements, not the security zone that extends nine miles into southern Lebanon."

So, in drawing a red line Netanyahu was treading on familiar ground. Admittedly, the line he drew was neither thin, nor particularly thick. As red lines go, its breadth was quite proportionate to its length.

In any event, what bothered me most, while watching him drawing, were two questions: What material was the slate with the drawing on it made of, and was that red line erasable?