“Any loss of life is regretted,” announced Col. Manfred Freytag, after a NATO pilot fired a missile into a bus carrying civilians across a bridge about ten miles out of Pristina. The official voice is unmistakable, even in Our Man Friday’s unnerving accent. In the official language of the New Order, true statements arc always put into the passive voice, lies into the active. “Mistakes were made,” chirped the First Family in its first term in reference to one or another of their peccadilloes—who can keep track? But when the President wants to lie, he has to use the active voice to avoid the suspicion that he is being evasive: “I never had a sekshall relationship . . . ” True to form, the Man who is Friday declared: “I want to underline that we did not bomb that bus.” Similarly, we did not bomb the Albanian refugees, insisted Jamie Shea, who also said we were not going to bomb Serbian television.

Serbs learning English—and Americans learning Serbian—are told to avoid the passive voice. But Serbs, like Italians, have a useful reflexive construction at their disposal whenever they want to avoid the moral burden imposed by a direct statement in the active. Stopping people on the street and asking directions is always embarrassing, if only because of the direct nature of the appeal; walking out of the train station in Florence, you want to ask: “Can you tell me where Santa Maria Novella is located?” (You feel like a complete fool, by the way, when the stranger points across the street.) It is somehow cleaner and less entangling to use the reflexive—”Si potrehbe dire . . . “— which is even less direct than: “Would it be possible to say?”

French and German equivocators can rely on their “on dit” and “man tut,” but an American cannot get away with “one says” or even “it isn’t done.” Some wiseacre is bound to ask: “Who says?” or “By whom isn’t it done?” But, bombs be praised, the NA TO empire has given us a complete grammar of lies: the feminine yin of the passive voice, coupled with the masculine yang of the lie direct. Chinese, of course, does without the verbal complexity of tense, mood, and voice, but in view of the Clinton administration’s decision to withhold no military secrets from the People’s Republic, we may all have to start boning up on Mandarin.