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I am currently reading a column by Thomas L. Friedman titled "We're always still Americans," published on December 11, 2014 in International New York Times.

If there had been another 9/11 after the first 9/11, many Americans would have told the C.I.A. to do whatever it wants, civil liberties be damned."

I clearly get what the author is trying to say, but the more I look into the sentence, the more confused I become with its structure.

At first, I thought "would" was omitted between "liberties" and "be," thus having a parallel structure with "many Americans would have told the C.I.A. to do whatever it wants."

  1. many Americans would have told the C.I.A. to do whatever it wants.

  2. civil liberties would be damned.

But, then I realized that it wouldn't make sense because the conditional clause "If there had been another 9/11 after the first 9/11" requires the main clause to be "would + the present perfect" tense like below.

  1. many Americans would have told the C.I.A. to do whatever it wants."
  2. civil liberties would have been damned.

So, my next guess was the following:

  • many Americans would have told the C.I.A. to do whatever it wants and civil liberties to be damned.

Now, I am more convinced with my own second guess, but I don't know if the "to" is grammatically allowed to be omitted. If so, why?

If my second guess is wrong, can somebody explain the structure of the last phrase?

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    "Do X, Y be damned" is an idiom in American English meaning roughly "Y is important enough that we don't care about X anymore", like "I'll do whatever it takes to save her life, consequences be damned" – AlannaRose Dec 21 '14 at 8:52
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    @AlannaRose - Not so much an idiom as a declaration that contains an ellipted phrase: "[and let the] consequences be damned". – Erik Kowal Dec 21 '14 at 9:01
  • Like suspending habeas corpus? – WS2 Dec 21 '14 at 14:23
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It is equivalent to "Let civil liberties be damned"

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    Or, in the precise context of the OP's cited text, "...and let civil liberties be damned". – Erik Kowal Dec 21 '14 at 8:57
  • Thanks for the precise answer! This is exactly what I wanted! – N.R. in Seoul Dec 21 '14 at 14:00
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    Though I am glad this answer helped the OP, I don't think it lends much insight to the construction or meaning of the sentence – AlannaRose Dec 21 '14 at 21:18
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Although Martin's answer is correct, the meaning is indeed equivalent to let…, it fails to explain the actual grammar behind.

civil liberties be damned.

This sentence uses subjunctive mood. It can be recognized because verbs in subjunctive present use the bare infinitive for all persons. For most verbs it makes no difference but for the 3rd person. For to be, however, it becomes in subjunctive present: I be, you be, he/she/it be, we be, they be.

It is this construction that gives “so be it” or “God save the Queen” (notice the lack of a s on save). Or “civil liberties be damned”.

There are several uses for subjunctive, involving wish-like verbs (“I wish he come” - correct albeit not used much those days). But it is also possible to use it standalone. In this case, Wikipedia says “a present subjunctive verb form is sometimes found in a main clause, with the force of a wish.”

  • I think you're on the right track, but... 1) the idea of a wish is only one use of the subjunctive mood, sometimes called the jussive subjunctive (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…); and 2) you haven't fully explained the grammar: how is the subjunctive mood indicated? In your three examples, it's indicated by a form of the verb that differs from the indicative singular form for the 1st or 3rd person (using a form that is identical to the plural indicative form). – LarsH Dec 21 '14 at 22:45
  • I added more details, tell me if it is better like this :) – spectras Dec 21 '14 at 23:17
  • Good job, +1. :-) And your description of the forms of be is correct where mine wasn't quite. – LarsH Dec 22 '14 at 2:16
  • I don't think "I wish he come" can be right. Ngram found no examples. It sounds ungrammatical to me - and I use the subjunctive reasonably often in writing and speech. And anyway this looks more like a jussive subjunctive to me. – Francis Davey Dec 22 '14 at 10:23
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    Shakespeare, from Anthony and Cleopatra: "Say that I wish he never find more cause to change a master." I believe that the subjunctive after "I wish he" is obsolete today, even in the U.S., which still uses the mandative subjunctive (so both of @spectras' examples from Wikipedia sound perfectly fine to me, but "I wish he find" sounds archaic). – Peter Shor Dec 22 '14 at 13:23
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The Macmillan dictionary says:

someone/something be damned OLD-FASHIONED
used for saying that you do not care at all about someone or something.
Art be damned! This is rubbish!

Z to do Y, X be damned means that Z doesn't care about X. There's no necessity for additional words in this construction, but, as Erik points out, [and] let [the] is omitted (Z to do Y, and let [the] X be damned). Read it thus:

Many Americans would have told CIA to do whatever it wants, without caring for civil liberties.

The implication of using be damned is that the outcome for X is almost certainly negative, and the speaker feels Z should care.

Compare:

  1. The manager wants the team to play attractive football, whatever be the results.
  2. The manager wants the team to play attractive football, results be damned.
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    Your analysis of the Macmillan account is not necessarily incorrect, but it represents only one interpretation. It also does not logically contradict the hypothesis that expressions containing the phrase [X be damned] have been ellipted from [let X be damned]: 'let [the]' could be inserted into any of those example sentences, and the resulting meaning (and degree of idiomaticity) would be the same. – Erik Kowal Dec 21 '14 at 9:20
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I see two grammatical errors in the sentence, to neither of which have you referred.

If there had been another 9/11 after the first 9/11, many Americans would have told the C.I.A. to do whatever it wanted - civil liberties be damned.

I think 'want' should be in the past tense to accord with 'have told'. I would also have used a dash, or possibly semi-colon, rather than a comma to lead into '-civil liberties be damned'.

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