This is Chomsky’s famous example of a sentence that, though grammatically perfect, is devoid of meaning. T S Eliot is also entitled to say ‘I think we are in rats’ alley, where the dead men lost their bones’, for the same reason: English is being used in both cases at one remove from pure meaning. Chomsky is demonstrating the divorce between structure and content; whilst Eliot is showing us that meaning can be made to sit some way behind both. It’s the distinction between the two functions of language: to communicate, and to convey.
Which brings me to the point: should Abu Qatada be deported to Jordan? The arguments hinge around the use of the word ‘evidence’, and in this case, we can home in on Chomsky rather than Eliot, communicate rather than convey, because, for once, a word means something that (granted the nuances of differing legal systems) can be agreed upon to mean one thing: evidence is information or allegation that can be presented in a court of law and demonstrated to be true.
In this case (and any other), it would be for the court to establish both of these criteria. So, in this country, we are told that he can’t be tried because the ‘evidence’ against him cannot be exposed to public view for fear of prejudicing the safety or viability of the source. Fine. By definition, that’s not evidence, because you’re not prepared to disclose it in court. So there’s no case. Similarly, in Jordan, by the same test, if ‘evidence’ has been gleaned by means accepted to be illegal, again, there is no evidence.
I personally couldn’t care less whether this bloke is renditioned to Jordan, stuck back to rot in a British gaol, tried, convicted or acquitted in either place, or set free to roam the world, pathetic but harmless as a stinking Lazarus. I do care about my language though.
Incidentally, colourless green ideas don’t sleep furiously; and we are indeed in rats’ alley, but haven’t lost our bones.