It begins with a moment of silence.
“Poetry is about the grief,” said Robert Frost. “Politics is about the grievance.” This is a time of grief, not grievance. This morning I assembled a litany of criticisms about what might have led up to yesterday’s events, but I couldn’t bring myself to publish it. That’s the work of politics, not poetry, and I’m not sure enough of my own motives to know if I’m responding appropriately. I agree with Keith Olbermann about the need for self-vigilance, as well as vigilance toward the words and deeds of others.
The violent rhetoric pervades one side of the political debate. But the harsh tone is widespread, and the culture itself is drug-sick from its addiction to violence: violence as entertainment, violence as communication, violence as a medium of human exchange. There is rhetorical and literal violence against women, minorities, those of different religions (or none at all), and anyone who causes us to reflexively recoil. The president called for “a moment of silence” today, and that seems right.
Here’s are some lines from Rudyard Kipling, brought to mind by the nine-year-old girl who was born on 9/11 and died at a gunman’s hand yesterday:
We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung,
And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth.
God help us, for we knew the worst too young!
Her name was Christina-Taylor Green, and she was in the third grade. She had just won her first elective office, as a member of her school’s student council, and she deserves a silence all her own. She was apparently there because of her love for politics. I was Christina-Taylor’s age when John Kennedy was murdered, and let’s hope that her generation doesn’t grow up equating politics and violence the way mine did. That path can lead to escapism, rage, and despair. Christina had just taken her First Communion at the Catholic Church.
I don’t believe we’re “done with Hope and Honour,” or that we’re “lost to Love and Truth.” But we’re in desperate shape if we can’t recognize that our society’s dropping rung by rung down a shadowy ladder. A nation that claims to live by Judeo-Christian principles seems not to have read the book of Proverbs: “The mouth of a righteous person is a well of life, but violence covereth the mouth of the wicked.” If that’s true of those we oppose, it can also be true of any poorly chosen words — including our own.
Proverbs goes on to say “he that refrains his lips is wise.” It seems that every religion shares the same wisdom: “Do not speak unless it improves on silence,” said the Buddha. “Silence robes you in dignity and spares you from making excuses,” said the Imam Ali. And the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell warned against being too certain of one’s own rectitude.
I’m not falling victim to a false equivalence, nor am I suggesting that the rhetoric is equally violent on both sides. It’s not, and there will be a time to talk about that. But today I choose silence over the risk that I could add to a flood of angry words. It’s the weight of those words that keeps knocking us down that ladder.
Kipling said that “a people always ends by resembling its shadow.” For me, that means doing nothing that might resemble the shadow that haunts us. How can I be sure that I won’t make that mistake now, today, while I’m still filled with anger and grief?
I choose silence.