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Words Do Matter

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Publication Date: 
14 January 2011

Some have called for stricter gun laws, at least in the sale of semiautomatic weapons. Some have focused on the need to improve the mental health system. And many among us have hoped for a respite from the malicious political rants that pollute our electronic media.

So far, though, the most noticeable change since the tragic shooting in Tucson on January 8 has been the modest reemergence of civility in political discourse. The new session of Congress that was to begin with the bitterly divisive Republican proposal to repeal President Obama’s healthcare reform began instead with calls for unity and renewing bipartisanship.

Such camaraderie may not last long, but it is safe to assume that politicians and their speechwriters will be far more careful about their word choices now than they were before January 8. That is no small tribute to the six who died and the 14 injured, including Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, that day.

I say this not because I subscribe to the idea that political vitriol necessarily incites violence.

If it did, a nation like Venezuela, where nearly half the population owns a gun, would have imploded. Under President Hugo Chavez’s 11-year rule, Venezuela has become one of the most politically polarized countries in recent history. Anti-Chavez leaders have called for his murder in the media while the Venezuelan leader has threatened to use tanks against opponents. Just last week, Chavez welcomed new members of the opposition to the General Assembly pledging to “shred them” to pieces. Despite the heated rhetoric, Venezuela has had no tragedies such as Arizona’s.

Nor do I believe that changing political rhetoric necessarily alleviates violence.

Next door to Venezuela, in Colombia, political violence has been a permanent feature since independence. During the 1940s and 50s liberals and conservatives killed one another over their political differences. To end La Violencia, moderate leaders on both sides pledged to lessen the acrimony and rise above partisanship by agreeing to share power and intercalate the presidency for almost two decades. While the sectarianism was overcome and no priest since has told his congregation that killing liberals is not a sin, political violence persists.

Civility becomes a tribute to the fallen in Tucson not because the lack of it was to blame for their demise. Rather it is in what comes later. By changing our tone and cultivating civil discourse we lay the groundwork for rising above the evil behind the tragedy and for facing the decisions to come. Or as Obama said during a memorial service in Arizona on January 12, “only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation.”

Some have argued that it is hard to draw any sort of lesson from what was an isolated – if despicable -- act of violence; and that suggesting otherwise is simply playing politics and further polarizing the nation.

Indeed, it may well be proven one day that the alleged killer, Jared Loughner, was impervious to the political climate of our day, somehow deaf to the world around him. And that Giffords, in fact, was less a target than a person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But as Francisco Leal, sociologist and honorary professor at the universities of Los Andes and Nacional in Colombia, put it in an interview, societies frequently ignore grave challenges by dismissing a tragedy such as Arizona’s as simply caused by “one bad apple”. To Leal, an accumulation of factors in the United States today –racism, economic recession, political obstructionism, lenient gun laws -- are creating a “breeding ground” for more violent acts.

In the aftermath of Arizona’s shooting some have lamented the power of words for influencing a deranged mind. But this is a bit like complaining that the sun shines.

It is the nature of words to be powerful. For most of us who choose to write for a living, it is precisely their potential to do good that drives us. As Nobel Writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez once wrote, he decided on his occupation because it leads “to the only thing I’ve been interested in since childhood: to continue to be loved by my friends.”

Imagine the possibilities if U.S. politicians picked their words now with a similar objective, that of earning the respect of their friends – and of their rivals. As Obama suggested during the memorial service, while words can wound, they can also be used to heal.

To publish Ms. Sanchez’s column, please contact the New York Times Syndicate:

Isabel Amorim Sicherle
in Sao Paulo
55-11-3812-5588
[email protected]

Ana Muñoz
in New York
212-556-5177
[email protected]