I have written frequently about gun violence in this country. I’ve written about it frequently because there have been so many headline-grabbing mass shootings.
If I had my wish, I would never again write about a mass shooting, or about gun violence more generally, because it simply would not be an issue. There wouldn’t be any mass shootings, and individual acts of gun violence would be rare.
Meanwhile, back in reality . . .
Separate from any discussion of mass shootings and gun violence generally, I have been struck by something else in the recent case of the shootings at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs.
That something is the role of language. There’s a lesson here about how leaders should lead, whatever one’s opinion about the relevant issues.
The fact is, the shootings took place in a Planned Parenthood office. It is also a fact that there has been some very heated rhetoric recently against Planned Parenthood, tied in particular to a video exposé alleging improper conduct by the organization. It takes little imagination to draw a connection between these events. Indeed, an unidentified “law enforcement official” reported that the shooter said “no more baby parts” . . . but that officer insisted on anonymity and would not elaborate (both of which should raise at least a little concern about the veracity and completeness of the account). The anonymous assertion fits neatly into the narrative of gun-toting extremists shooting and killing others in the name of defending life that is popular in certain circles on the left. It fits just as neatly, in fact, as the controversial video’s account of Planned Parenthood practices fit into a popular narrative among conservatives about abortion providers.
In the Internet era, we not only are guaranteed that such claims will be made, but we can be confident that they will reach the eyes and ears of tens of thousands if not millions of Americans.
Somewhat to my surprise, most of the mainstream media has resisted the temptation to leap to judgment about the tragedy in Colorado Springs. Rather than generating headlines with assertions of political motivation, they have tended to stick with what is known about the event and investigated the life of the accused. While they have raised the possibility, they have not run much ahead of the investigation under way.
The first official statement from Planned Parenthood was careful as well, focusing on the tragedy itself, the victims and their families, and the mission of the organization. More recently, however, Planned Parenthood’s message has veered into a familiar political narrative that feeds the political fire. That puts them in the company of the fire-breathers on the right that they condemn; both sides are, in effect, blaming the other for murder.
This is not about how noble or vile the Planned Parenthood organization, its mission or its particular lines of service and business, are. Nor is it about the nobility (or lack thereof) of the mainstream media.
We’ve had multiple mass shootings just in this calendar year, and many more in previous years. The perpetrators, in essentially every case, have a distorted view of reality. Their victims are targeted for any number of reasons, but the bottom line is that the killers don’t care about their victims at all. Whether religious or secular in their motivation to kill, whether hoping to make a statement or seeking some bizarre experience, they are wrong on so many levels that it stuns and stupefies us. How could anyone take such evil and consider it acceptable, let alone good?
Some of these killers have found inspiration or motivation in the words and images others have produced. Some of that reflects confusion about the line between a wicked fantasy and an evil reality. Some of it, however, is simply putting into action what others have called for or at least implied.
If we create such content, we must be conscious of its potential cost. We may be fueling the fire in overheated minds, sweltering streets and a society in turmoil.
Words have the power to inflame or to heal. They have the power to destroy and the power to rebuild. Each of us engaged in public discourse should ask what it is we are doing by what we are saying.
Because it matters.
We already knew that.
We didn’t need any more deaths to tell us.