Words Still Matter

I wrote a piece for one of my previous blogs about personal responsibility. My focus was on the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller, a doctor who performed abortions. I wondered what culpability could rightly be assigned to Fox News Talk Show Host Bill O’Reilly in light of his well-documented crusade against Tiller. I concluded that to cite O’Reilly’s inflammatory rhetoric was not to deny the killer’s personal responsibility. In fact, I argued, we needed to expand the scope of personal responsibility to include the words we utter.  Our words fall on many ears, some of which are connected to sick brains. All of us, but especially people with a strong pulpit, need to be mindful. I believed it then; I believe it now.

Now, after the apparent execution-style murder of two NYPD police officers, pundits are busting out the “blood on the hands” line again. This time, they’re blaming New York’s Mayor de Blasio, President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and the perennial favorite bogeyman to the right wing, Rev Al Sharpton.

Ok, I thought. Gut-check time. Am I applying one standard to O’Reilly and one to people with whom I’m more likely to find common ideological ground?

I went digging and here’s the thing: I can’t find anything those people said that can even hold a tiny candle to the vitriol O’Reilly spewed toward Tiller. Granted, we are talking about (mostly) elected figures versus a well-paid peddler of hate, so I see this isn’t a one-to-one comparison. But I can’t find anything dangerous that they’ve said at all. (if you want to tell me that Sharpton presided over a rally that called for dead cops, please view this and know that juicy bit of propaganda was a lie).

What I see is our elected officials acknowledging that a whole lot of people they’ve been elected to serve have concerns about institutional racism, about the lack of legal accountability for police officers, about the unchecked use of lethal force by police.

Acknowledging that there is unrest, or even possibly injustice, is not the same thing as voicing a desire to get one’s hands on a doctor. It is certainly not the same thing as advocating the murder of police officers.

I’m sure we’ll hear arguments forever about how much the unsettled atmosphere of the day contributed to the murder of Officers Liu and Ramos. He may have posted about it on social media and it certainly may have been a factor. But, remember, he also shot his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore and killed himself. Clearly, there were issues beyond “revenge” for the highly-publicized deaths at the hands of police officers and subsequent lack of indictments.

So everyone, please. Let’s just take it down a notch. Let’s remember that if we are really lucky our words have impact on people.

That’s both a privilege and a responsibility.

PS Adding to the recent list of words and phrases I’d like to never hear again:  race hustler and blood on hands.