Words matter

Recently I heard a television news report about the suicide death of a teenage girl in Florida.  The report stated she was “bullied in cyberspace” by more than a dozen girls and could no longer stand the pain.  Her mother poignantly asked of those who bullied her daughter, “Who teaches them the hate?”

A very good question.

This young girl, press reports say she was 12, was first bullied at school and then the bullying followed her home on Facebook. Even after switching schools and closing down the Facebook site the bullying continued via other social media.

It is hard for me to understand how anyone can be “terrorized” in “cyberspace.”  But I am more than half a century older than this girl. We may as well be from different planets. I am wise enough to see that today’s children and teenagers inhabit a world that is far different from the one in which I “came of age.”

I remember being bullied but it was contained to school. When I came home I knew I was safe. When I was twelve my parents moved us from Massachusetts to Florida and I switched from public school to parochial. That school switch prompted some bullying but it probably also saved me because we wore uniforms. My parents were not wealthy and, as a culture, we had begun to enter an age in which “branding” was everything. The “right” shoes, dress, car…all of it became so important because everything we read or saw said it was.

So, is it the “branding” that teaches us hate? To a certain extent I think the answer is yes. Many children have so much material wealth with no sense of how it arrives and the tribal nature of children encourages cohesion and exclusion based on what is most familiar and comfortable.

But I also think of the time in which this young girl lived. She was born in 2000 and in the whole of her life she only knew war and divisiveness. War in Iraq and Afghanistan, divisiveness … everywhere.  Elections, Congress, TV talking heads, gangs, Fox vs. CNN, Apple v. PC, and on and on.  She was bombarded daily by thousands of words, not all of them very nice words and the majority of them thoughtless–as in without thought.

When they eventually identify the 12-15 girls who cyber-bullied this young twelve year-old I am sure that one of them will say, “Well, I never thought ________.”  Fill in the blank. You know what it will be. Another pathetic apology about the sin of not thinking that words matter.

And that is where this story becomes so sad to me. According to the report I saw this young girl, Rebecca Ann Sedwick, wrote the following:

“How many lives have to be lost until people realize that words do matter?”

Oh, Rebecca.  My heart was already aching for you but these words pierced my soul because they are SO true. Words do matter and our society has forgotten that. We seem to be moving at light speed away from the understanding of words and their value.

Several years ago I overheard two young colleagues talking to each other and one used the expression “ ’Ho” in referring to the other.  Something like “You ‘ho.”  I couldn’t bear it any longer and I called them to task. “Words matter,” I said. “If you call her a ‘ho she becomes a ‘ho.”  They both looked at me with that look the young give the old.  It plainly states, “You don’t understand.”

The one who had used the term tried to defend it and the recipient of the description waved it off, as if to say “It’s nothing.”

“You don’t understand,” I said.  “Language is the bedrock of society. If our language deteriorates so will our culture. Words are important.”

They both looked at me differently and the one who had used the phrase became thoughtful. “Language is the bedrock of society…,” she said.  “I have never thought of words in that way.”

For Rebecca’s sake, let’s please start thinking about our words.

Terror as Fashion

hetherington_01_nyc116981HBO is running a new documentary entitled Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington.”  Hetherington was a photojournalist who spent almost his entire adult life photographing war and conflict.  He died in Libya in 2011.  NPR has an excellent summary of the documentary as well as many of Hetherington’s pictures . That’s one of his photos to the left.

The film is well worth your time.  Much of it focuses on a documentary by Hetherington and writer/producer Sebastian Junge  called “Restrepo.” It was nominated for an Academy Award.  The team embedded themselves for almost a year with a U.S. Army unit on the remote frontline in Afganistan, creating an intimacy that few war correspondents have been able to equal. An example of that intimacy can be seen in some surprisingly powerful pictures of soldiers engaged in the act of sleep.  These simple pictures of soldiers in deep slumber are as good as it gets in photography.

At one point in the HBO documentary Junge talks about the future that Hetherington never had.  Junge states that Hetherington was looking for a new project at the time of his death and that the photographer was absorbed with “the self referential idea about war in which soldiers in war see themselves in ways that are informed by the images of other soldiers in war and there is a conscious cycle of imitation going on.”

Perhaps it was because I saw this documentary in the same week as the Boston Marathon Bombing that I have focused so intently on those words and have found myself thinking about war and terror as fashion. Even though there was much about the Boston event that was unique it seemed, at least to me, that it was just the latest in a long line of “self referential” events that are “informed by the images of other[s]” and that there is a “conscious cycle of imitation going on.”  It is an almost perfect description of fashion.

The relentlessly looping pictures of the Tsarnaev brothers only served to underscore this thought.  There’s Tamerlan, the older brother, business like in his dark glasses, dark jacket, black cap pulled low and, of course, the black backpack.  He is not unlike the photos we saw of the 9/11 terrorists calmly making their way through “security”  on their way to transform airliners into modern day kamikaze  planes. And then there is Dzhokhar, suspect #2, so young and cocky in his swagger with the backwards baseball cap and backpack full of pain and death slung cavalierly across one shoulder.  We have all seen hundreds of Dzhokars on the streets in our hometown or on the nightly news with its video from Beirut, Damascus, or Bangkok.  The Tsarnaev brothers  were perfectly normal, nothing “out of the ordinary” young men. You could “photoshop” either one of them off of Bolyston Street and place them on almost any street in the world and our reaction would be the same — these two would blend in almost anywhere.

Similarly Hetherington’s pictures seem to capture the “average” young warrior (men and women) who are startlingly familiar. Too bad he didn’t have a chance to act on that idea for a new project.

Thankfully we still have the presence of Sebastian Junge who produced a heart rendering, thought provoking tribute to his friend in the HBO documentary. The film is filled with quotes and ideas that kept rumbling through my head in the past few days, so much so that it sent me back to HBO On Demand so I could re-watch certain sections of the documentary again.

Martin RichardAt one point there is an interview with another frontline journalist, James Brabazon, who talks about his grandfather’s experiences serving in India during World War II.  “War,” the old man told Brabazon, “is the only opportunity that men have in society to love each other unconditionally.”  That statement seems so sorrowful and yet, for so many, it is true. Surely it was unconditional love that we saw in the face of Dzhokar following his brother into the history books as they prepared to manufacture hell on Bolyston Street and utterly alter the lives of so many innocent people.  But it doesn’t have to be that way. There was also unconditional love in the bright, wide-eyed smile of an 8-year old holding a simple message, “No more hurting people.”  For those who wish for a sign — whether it be from Allah or Jesus Christ — they need look no further. ☙

Hoisted on Your Own Petard

The Petard

The death of News of the World, the last flight of the space shuttle, and the debt crisis: these items dominated the Sunday morning talk shows today.  In recent weeks I have found myself returning to these “weekly roundups.”  I can barely tolerate the 24/7 coverage of CNN or MSNBC and will not even consider Fox News, although I have tried.  But the “roundup” shows seem to capture the important points and this week’s topics, while seemingly disparate, do seem to have a similar thread to me: they have all been hoisted on their own petard.

The petard doesn’t figure in with too much of our history these days but at one time it was as vital to soldiers as the tank or the canon is today.  The petard was a small bomb that was used to blast open doors or make holes in castle walls. From what  can probably be assumed as a humble beginning, the petard evolved to a major weapon of war, used to blast an army’s way into castles and other fortifications. According to Wikipedia, “a common tactic was to dig a shallow trench close to the enemy gate, and then erect a small hoisting engine that would lift the lit petard out of the trench, swing it up, out, and over to the gate, where it would detonate and hopefully breach the gate.  This procedure might go awry; the engineer lighting the bomb could be snagged in the ropes, lifted out with the petard, and consequently blown up.” Hence he was hoisted on his own petard.

The phrase became well known complements of William Shakespeare’s tragic hero, Hamlet, who hoisted his schoolmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the petard of Hamlet’s wicked uncle, King Claudius.  The plot was to have R&G assist with the destruction of Hamlet but the clever Dane turned the table and it was R&G who died.

Without question the News of the World wins the Hoist award for the week. The British scandal sheet has printed its last edition and, seemingly, hacked its last phone.  The British public seemed quite content when the only phones hacked were those of the Monarchy — British or Hollywood style.  But when the “reporters” turned their hacking on a missing 13-year old girl who was eventually found murdered the public turned on a dime. Worse yet, it was revealed in this same week that the eavesdropping and email snooping extended to the fallen heros of Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps as many as 4,000 families of soldiers.  The British, quite rightly, do not take to the ghoulish invasion of privacy that this story suggests.  After all, what was the point? To listen to heartsick family members mourn the loss of their brave soldiers?  To perhaps hear anger at British policy that has supported a decade-long war?  It is incomprehensible and no amount of recompense can resolve this gross violation of privacy but attempts will be made.  As early as April the paper’s parent company, Rupert Murdock’s tainted News International, established a ₤15 million compensation fund for hacking victims.  The writing was on the wall even then.  Today the estimate is closer to ₤120 million and the damage has only begun to surface.

Mr. Murdoch, being no fool, has tucked his tail and turned the other way. While the “reporters” and hackers at NoW have already been hoisted it remains to be seen if the General will get his comeuppance.  One can only hope.

Meanwhile, the space shuttle Atlantis is orbiting around the world for the last time and upon its (hopefully) safe return the shuttle program is no more.  As one who has thrilled to the accomplishments of the space program from its very beginning I cannot help but feel we are loosing far more than a “space truck”.  I can remember Alan Shepherd’s 15 minute blast into space.  My high school day stopped dead and, what few TVs we had, were tuned to the grainy, black-and-white event.  Students crowded cheek-to-jowl to see the blastoff and anxiously await the recovery.  In December 1968, while in college, I witnessed the blast-off of Apollo 8 on a cold beach in Florida.  I felt the thunder of the Saturn 5 rocket shake the very core of my being and watched the ascent of three brave men who were going to the moon, albeit just to circle that orb a few times and then head home.  But wonderfully those orbits came on Christmas Eve and the words of Genesis read by Frank Borman were universal enough to appeal to people of all faiths, to all the people of this world.  It was an earth uniting moment that gives me chills even today as I write.  It was a colossal moment of hope.

Space shuttle arrived with perhaps less sex appeal.  No moon trips for this baby.  But it would do great things. We were sure of that. And it has.  The international space station is no small feat and repair of the Hubble satellite alone was worth the investment. Those of us who grew up in the glamor days of space travel knew that nuts and bolts work was a part of it.  Pay the price because space is important.  Think of it every time you velcro up your jacket or shoes, or look at the computers that you carry everywhere or type in an address on your GPS.  It was the space program that brought these marvels to you.

And now the American space program is … what? Where?  How, in these times particularly when there seems so little hope, how can we close the shuttle program with no viable future for American involvement in space other than “private enterprise” and some vague pronouncement from the Obama Administration about space programs that have no time table.  The man who had the audacity to hope has not applied that hope to space.

But NASA shares a huge part of the blame in this.  Their policy from the beginning of the space shuttle program was to make space flight “routine.”  We no longer had “space ships” or “spacecraft”.  It was NASA itself that first used the term “space truck”.  At one time, in their hubris, NASA predicted a flight every month from the space shuttles.  The astronauts were no longer the glamorous people of the Mercury 7 or the Gemini 13.  They were “payload specialists” and NASA downplayed their personalities, choosing instead to float special candidates to the top, like Sally Ride (America’s first woman in space) and teacher Christa McAuliffe.  In part this was to protect the astronauts but the net result was no heros.  Only those who died became heros and the colossal waste of these failed missions — both in lives and financial investment — did little to help NASA in its public relations efforts to keep Americans excited about the positive accomplishments of space travel. NASA has been hoisted too.

Which brings us to the debt ceiling crisis that is playing out in agonizing (and numbing) detail on our TVs each day.  Chicken Little with his cries of a falling sky looks like a rank amateur compared to the players in this drama. The sad part is that the sky really is about to fall and we (with apologies for metaphor mixing) are like lambs to the slaughter.  The public is so ideologically bludgeoned that it can no longer determine what is real and what isn’t.  The media, playing the role of Chicken Little with remarkable likeness, clamors daily about the dangers but it fails to give the public the reliable data it needs to make a decision and raise an upcry.  Fareed Zakaria the columinist and commentator, has done the best job of explaining the failure that I have heard.  Speaking on NPR, he succinctly noted that the budget is about numbers, not ideology.  So much money coming in, so much money going out.  It is simple math to make things work but both political parties have made even the process of math ideological.  Democrats won’t accept cuts, Republicans won’t increase revenue.  The result? A very real and dangerous situation in which the United States of America may, for the first time in 235 years, default on its loans.  The political parties are already hoisted on their own petards but the great fear is that they are about to take us there with them.❧