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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow Sometimes words don't matter

Sometimes words don't matter


The concept epitomized by the phrase “words have consequences” has gotten a lot of play in the media since six people were murdered and 14 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, were hurt in a shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 8.

Sadly, as is typical with such simplifications, relatively few commentators seem inclined to soberly evaluate whether the “words have consequences” charge, whatever its validity in general, contains even a scrap of relevance to the Tucson tragedy.

We say no, it doesn’t.

To answer otherwise we would have to believe that someone else’s words or actions were a necessary ingredient — as vital as the pistol and the cartridges inside its clip — in the shootings with which Jared Loughner is charged.

Or, put another way, we would have to believe that if only someone — Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin have been indicted most often as conspirators — had refrained from making some particularly inciting statements, then Loughner would not have pulled the trigger.

Yet, despite extensive evaluations of Loughner’s sometimes incoherent ramblings, there is no credible evidence to suggest he was driven to this heinous act, as if by some inexorable force, by the words or actions of anybody.

Which means that nobody’s words or actions, save those of the man with the gun, is responsible for this slaughter.

This leads us to suspect that people who employ the “words have consequences” slogan, or something analogous, in reference to the Tucson murders are trying to score political points rather than elucidate us with a sincere commentary on the nature and ramifications of public discourse.

But wait, some pundits respond.

Even in the absence of an unimpeachable cause and effect relationship between, say, Limbaugh’s radio rants, or Palin’s cross-haired congressional maps, and these murders, that brand of caustic language and imagery has so polluted political debate that the Arizona killings were to be expected, indeed perhaps were inevitable.

This is merely the same baseless accusation, except the blanket of blame covers a bigger swath.

If there was no specific “call to arms” that put a gun in Loughner’s hand, then it’s farcical to even imply that something less directly influential — a “climate of hate” or some similarly amorphous notion — set the madman into motion.

Looking beyond this single incident, however, the complaint that mindless vitriol passes for political commentary is a valid one. (Although this situation is as ancient as politics itself, not the recent scourge that some people who haven’t studied history seem to believe.)

We agree as well that much of the noise blaring from the fringes of the political spectrum is the rhetorical equivalent of candy — rich in empty calories and artificial additives but devoid of nutritional value.

Obviously it is impossible to say, with certainty, that such bellicose commentary is incapable of exerting real influence on a person or a group that ends up committing an atrocity.

In other words, yes, words sometimes do have consequences.

We would be pleased if the military jargon that has infested American politics for so long was purged, if only because its use trivializes actual warfare.

We’ve had our fill of states described as “battlegrounds” when no soldiers are fighting, or dying, there.

Still and all, the hyper-partisan cacophony in America seems to us more a nuisance than a danger.

These tunnel-vision blatherings can induce a sort of mental sclerosis, to be sure, a condition which discourages people from tenaciously dissecting an issue and then reaching a conclusion based on their own examination.

Yet there’s a vast gulf — and for us an unbridgeable one — between fretting about Americans’ dwindling aptitude for critical thinking, and asserting that a radio or TV commentator’s words compelled Loughner to fire bullets into a crowd of innocent people.

We understand that humans, having solved so many of the world’s vexing mysteries over the centuries, feel compelled to to explain every disaster, to affix blame whenever tragedy occurs.

But we ought to accept the reality that people, on rare occasions, become in effect flesh-and-blood versions of volcanoes or earthquakes. Their actions, though destructive and horrible, are the consequence not of someone’s words or political machinations, but rather the product of the maladies from which they suffer.

Beseeching Americans to forego the easy slur for the toil of well-reasoned debate, as President Obama did so eloquently in his speech in Arizona last week, is a reasonable request.

But in presenting our case as to why civility ought to prevail over rancor, none of us should use as evidence crimes committed by a man who, it seems, was the puppet only of his own diseased mind.

 
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