Careful what you ‘refuse’

From a story about the tumult in the former Soviet republic of Georgia:

For Shevardnadze, the silver-haired 75-year-old president who served as Soviet foreign minister in the waning days of the Soviet Union and has led his troubled country of 5 million since 1992, the day was a steady drumbeat of bad news. Trusted advisers decamped to the opposition, the defense minister refused publicly to use force against his fellow citizens and hundreds of police and soldiers still in their uniforms joined the protesters.

See, this is why we avoid using “refuse” when less loaded verbiage is available. I can’t help thinking this really means, “the defense minister balked at his obligation to use force against his fellow citizens.” The point here is that Shevardnadze knew he couldn’t rely on his defense minister to put down the revolt, because the minister had had a public promise not to use force. A simple fix is to say the minister “vowed publicly not to use force.”

Most of the time the “refuse rule” applies to sources who won’t talk to reporters. Our J-school professors told us “refuse” implies an unmet obligation — but people have no obligation to speak to the press, the thinking goes, so let’s not have them “refuse” to comment.