(by contributing writer, Brooke Bell)
Political civility is now a matter of life and death.
When King Henry II of England spoke these immortal words to his loyal knights in 1170 AD, complaining bitterly about Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Beckett, four knights took it as tantamount to a command, and executed the priest.
What King Henry II actually said may have differed slightly.
“What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!” -Edward Grim, the Life of St. Thomas 1170
“[he said] that he was very unfortunate to have maintained so many cowardly and ungrateful men in his court, none of whom would revenge him of the injuries he sustained from one turbulent priest.” George Lyttleton, 1772 History of the Life of King Henry the Second
No one, not even at the time, believed King Henry II actually gave a direct order for Beckett’s execution. Nevertheless, the King spoke and Beckett died as a direct result. The words had great power.
Loose Talk Costs Lives
The once popular phrase, today more often expressed as “Loose Lips Sink Ships”, was coined by the War Office to remind Americans that during war, thoughtless words can kill.
What was true during WWII, may be even more true today in America’s growing conflict with radicalization and mass violence.
In a country of 325.7 million, almost evenly divided politically, the ability to preserve civility in disagreement is more crucial than ever.
Unlike Henry II, or even people in 1945, everything we say now has the potential to be amplified far beyond anything humankind has ever known.
Henry II might have chosen his words more carefully if they were being broadcast to 325.7 million people.
Imagine King Henry II venting his spleen in our modern context; not to a small group of supporters, but to millions. People from radically diverse backgrounds and values-systems, hailing from nearly every other country on earth, every variant of the human condition, young and old, male and female.
Including the mentally ill.
And as the events of this past weekend, and so many other chilling events of this nature, clearly illustrate, the mentally ill are listening. And vulnerable. Out among the normal, reasonably-functioning members of society are those who are, quietly sheltering in place or loudly declaiming on social media, descending into the type of madness that drives a person to mass murder.
Responsibility Gets Personal
The head of any organization, any teacher, blogger, parent, movie star or television personality, anyone with a platform of any kind, has a personal responsibility to choose their words with care, now that you know who is listening.
People in the public, from President Trump to Rep. Maxine Waters, should proceed accordingly.
Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Independents, Green Party; everyone in Washington needs to take this opportunity to unequivocally condemn violence and incivility in any form.
But a long-view look at this crisis reveals another key player with the biggest seat at the table and a larger platform than anyone.
The Power of the News/Entertainment Complex
How words brought down the Berlin Wall.
Who brought down the Berlin Wall? Was it the People of East and West Germany? Bowie, Springsteen and David Hasselhoff held concerts in support of destroying the wall and everything it stood for, right before the wall came down; was it them? Was it Reagan, with his unforgettable and unflinching challenge; “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”?
Or was it an Italian reporter hardly anyone has ever heard of named Riccardo Hermann?
Mr. Hermann, covering a press conference the following day about a possible easing of travel restrictions between the two halves of Berlin, received a mysterious phone call the night before.
“Ask this question:” the caller, who remains nameless to this day, told the reporter, “When will these changes take place?”.
The fumbling answer he received from a harried East-German bureaucrat held only three famous words:
“ab sofort, unverzüglich” (“from now, immediately”)
The resulting surge of people, galvanized by this complete mishandling of a sole reporter’s single, loaded question, soon overwhelmed the flabbergasted and unprepared soldiers manning the wall, and changed the face of the free world forever.
Retraction, page 8; by the time the mistake was sorted out, it was much too late. The wall had already come down.
So what happens when the media misuses it’s great power?
Yelling FIRE! in a Crowded Movie Theatre
Media-glorified violence and the rise of the modern monster.
You can’t yell “FIRE!” in a crowded movie theatre, or so they say. Everyone knows that. It isn’t in the constitution, but it is understood to mean that there may be limits placed on free-speech.
But what if you don’t exactly yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theatre; what if you just start a rumor in each row that the theatre is definitely going to be on fire any minute now? That person over there looks like a pyromaniac, conditions are ripe for a fire; code violations, old wiring. It could happen. Is that OK?
Or what if you don’t yell “FIRE!” in a crowded movie theatre at all, and you don’t start any rumors about a dangerous fire situation, pyromaniacs in the audience, possible faulty wiring- either?
What if you just offer to pay certain people a dollar for each movie-goer they can panic enough to hit the exit bar?
What role does the media play in incidents like these?
In Part II. of this series, we’ll look at serial killer trends since the 1900’s, the media’s complicity in creating the ‘Designer Killer’, and the link between advances in forensic science and spree killers.
Think the media doesn’t glorify serial killers? The Night-stalker is so popular, he has letterhead to answer his fan mail.