Let me stress: This essay is not an accusation that Sarah Palin’s grammar of divisiveness and vocabulary of violence directly set mass shooter Jared Loughner off on his January 8 rampage.
But words are powerful, and do influence—if not trigger—actions. Words are not important then, but irrelevant now. You can’t have it both ways.
Upon what is the nation’s multibillon-dollar advertising industry predicated if not the premise that words (and images) convince people to buy product? Why do politicians of all stripes speechify and spend to the hilt for media coverage if not to capture votes?
What we read, see, and hear sways us. What we do with information is each individual’s responsibility.
No single factor can be blamed for Loughner’s rampage that left a 9-year-old girl, a federal judge, and four others dead, as well as three injured, including gravely-wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (Democrat-Arizona).
But Palin’s US map targeting her opponents in crosshairs (if you buy “surveyor’s marks,” call me about my swamp properties) was created to impart some intentional message.
Words always have had import, and listeners who will carry them out. English King Henry II’s purported “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest” literally was executed on Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was murdered on December 29, 1170.
Unbalanced people are not necessarily stupid. They may be acting under some inner, twisted logic. Time Magazine’s “Special Report” on Tucson in its January 24 issue noted that schizophrenics generally don’t resort to violence. But Loughner, if he is indeed suffering from that illness, laid in a shotgun and 9mm Glock pistol with 30-round extended magazines.
It’s as presumptuous to assert what didn’t trigger a killing spree as to declare what precipitated Loughner’s rampage. No single word did.
However, words, like snowflakes mounting to critical mass preceding an avalanche, can create an atmosphere encouraging intolerance and then violence, evidenced more mundanely in homes and classrooms, as well as from the bully pulpit.
A teacher’s repeated slights about race, weight, or gender can render the named child more vulnerable to bullying. Teacher, preacher, parent—an authority figure’s words parent—give their willing listener tacit permission to act.
In the aftermath of the shooting, President Barack Obama urged, “It’s important for us to pause for a moment, and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”
How? Watch your words.