At least it’s what a president should say

In the early 1970s, a period of turmoil and division not so very different from now, the owners of this newspaper awoke one morning to find the remnants of a seven-foot-high burnt-out cross outside the home of our publisher at the time. Emblazoned on it were the letters, “KKK.”

In and of itself, it was a failure in the world of intimidation. The home was built on the downslope of a hill, and though the smell of oil and the evidence of burnt rags gave proof that the cross had been set ablaze in the night, no one had noticed.

The telephone threats that came later were harder to overlook.

Over the years, in the course of doing our job as we see it, in the course of covering news and sharing honest opinion as we fathom it, our staff and owners have been threatened, cursed, ku-kluxed, boycotted, shamed and shunned. We have seen ads canceled that we desperately needed, and seen subscriptions canceled that we dearly wanted.

We have not, however, ever suffered anything like the staff at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis suffered this past week – the specter of a shotgun-toting hot-head pacing through the office, shooting down friends and colleagues.   

Journalists are far from the only Americans at risk in their jobs. Electric linemen, construction workers, marital counselors, judges, police officers, fire fighters, soldiers and, so it seems, school teachers and even school children are among the many who face dangers in the workplace. It can happen in any setting, to anyone.

Why violence in our country is triggered by firearms so regularly, so brutally, in such high numbers, is a debate that tears at old wounds in this country. Perhaps our culture has something to do with it; surely our gun laws do. Solving it at this late date, across a continent so diverse, is one of the great tasks that lie before us.

Meanwhile, we need not reconcile every nuance of the gun rights debate to recognize that a minority among us are seeding violence and cheapening life by using dehumanizing language as its own kind of weapon. They attack easy targets, including those who look different, for political gain. They attack  those who rise in objection to this tawdry bullying. And, yes, they attack those who report the plain facts of what is happening.

There are plenty of fools in journalism, just as there are plenty of fools in banking, or auto mechanics, farming, rocket science – or politics. The human condition is given to fallibility.

But across the country and across the world are journalists who are called to their professions as a kind of priestly order, dedicated to doing right as their gods give them the power to see that right, determined to tell large stories and small with fidelity, and conscience, and, when the occasion demands, to write the truth as they can find it, in bits and on deadline, in the face of intimidation and even violence. Through this fallible instrument we know our world.

Alas, for too many the notion of journalism has become polluted by carnival hawkers on cable entertainment shows where the phrase “news” is used elastically. Most journalists own worse ties and lesser makeup, are ill-paid, work long hours, pretend to be cynics, and carry a naïve notion of patriotism (and the power of freely shared ideas) tattooed somewhere up the sleeve if not on the heart.

Since recent record-keeping began in 1992 by the international Committee For The Protection of Journalists, 1,817 of these journalists have been killed, 1,306 of those killings confirmed to be because of their job as score-keepers and truth-tellers for society. That was before this week. We can now add more names to the list. More than twice as many journalists have been killed in the line of duty in Maryland this year than police officers, for example.

It would be unfair to lay this wreath of violence on the doorstep of our president. Crudity predates him. Violence will outlast him. Words, after all, are not bullets.

But neither are words harmless. Religion shows us words can have power and grace. Lincoln demonstrates it. “Mr. Gorbachov, tear down this wall” confirms it.

When a man so powerful that his very whisper can send mighty rockets flying across the world to kill, when a man like that says that most Muslims are a threat, that most Mexican immigrants are probably rapists, most judges are likely corrupt, the FBI crooked, and journalists – especially journalists – are fakers, liars, evil-doers, enemies of the people, then those words, too, have power.

They do not kill. But you are kidding yourself if you think they do not contribute.

From McCarthy to Nixon to now, if this newspaper has at times been threatened and pilloried, it has more often been defended, and even praised. That is because of what becomes an almost mystic compact between decent newspapers and their readers. We have been blessed with readers who forgive our many failings, who perhaps recognize an honest striving to be better, who correct us, who accept and push and demand and debate and, finally, improve us.  Few readers, we presume, agree with everything they find on our pages; and yet, in testament to the better angels of humankind, we engage with one another, sharing forbearance – and news. The threats, in fact, are few.

The Capital Gazette published on schedule the day after its people were slain, with blood still, literally, on the floor. Our president issued a statement, the kind that is expected.

He said it was a horrible thing. He said journalists should not live in fear of violence. He pledged his eternal support to the families.

It did not sound particularly sincere but it is at least what a president should say. We applaud him for that, just as we hold him accountable for using his office, his words, and his power to help light a path through the darkness for those who relish political gamesmanship at any cost, and those who feed on fear, and division, and who would see deeper truths go unreported.

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