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Tragedy in Arizona

I wasn’t at home in Arizona at the time of the recent shooting and didn’t hear about it when it happened. I had flown to Burbank, California the day before to present a writing workshop at the Burbank Library. I only heard about it from some friends who came to hear my talk, and there wasn’t much time to go into it before I had to begin my workshop.

I rushed off to the airport immediately afterwards. Since all the TVs at the airport displayed sporting events, I began to think it might not be as bad as I’d heard. But when my husband met me at the airport in Phoenix, and through our long drive home as we struggled to find radio updates in the big stretches of a state where radio signals can be scarce, I learned the casualties were even worse than I feared. Even more senseless, and just as wrong.

I was saddened by the news, of course, but not shocked. No, I can’t claim I knew Representative Gabrielle Giffords would be targeted, but after such a toxic election, I felt certain it was just a matter of time until someone was gunned down somewhere, either for their political beliefs, or the beliefs that others ascribed to them. Some of our public officials have been depicted as figuratively in the crosshairs, and it was only a matter of time until an actual threat was carried out against someone.

I’m so sick of politicians who play fast and loose with language. Tiptoeing over the line when it comes to instigating hostilities. Winking at their own careless choices of expression. And when the violence they’ve been flirting with calling for finally breaks out, jumping away from it and disclaiming all responsibility.

Remember that little ditty we learned as kids?:

Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words will never hurt me.

While the intent of getting kids not to take the nastiness other kids might dish out too seriously might be good, the sentiment is not accurate. Sticks and stones may hurt, they may even kill. But words can do just as much damage. Some people carry the wounds words create through all the days of their lives.

Words carry immense power. Every writer knows that, and every reader should. When we feel ourselves being swayed by heated rhetoric, our skepticism should kick in, especially when the intent appears to enflame our anger against someone else. While most of us do think for ourselves, the more unstable and the most gullible among us are too easily swayed. And some people simply find it more comfortable to move in lockstep with the slogans printed on bumper stickers.

We’re not big on taking personal responsibility in this culture, though. We’re more into blaming others for our mistakes and justifying ourselves when the action we took went the wrong way. And some of our politicians are leading the blame game charge. I think our leaders should be better than that. But how can we attract principled people if there’s a good chance they’ll fall prey to someone else’s “Second Amendment remedy” for stating their minds?

Perhaps a good first step in becoming a less angry society is to simply speak more exactly. To choose our words wisely, and to be aware of their power.

Don’t say it if you don’t mean it. And if you do say it, own up to what you said.