There is a lyric in the Harry Chapin song “Story Of A Life” that I’ve always found somewhat appropriate for those of us who toil in my particular line of work: 

“Sometimes words can serve me well,

Sometimes words can go to hell

For all that they do...”

As a newspaper columnist, I understand and appreciate the sentiment Chapin was attempting to convey in those lines. Because there are times when, as much as I hate to admit it, words fail me.

I was oh so proud back in 1991 to earn my hard-earned degree in communications - the first member of my immediate family to earn a bachelor’s degree, darned right I was proud! - but there are times when it feels that having that communications degree does me absolutely no good whatsoever. Because there are times when I look at what’s going on in the world around me, and I simply cannot find the right words to say.

When the 9-11 attacks occurred, the best response I was able to muster was to write a column discussing how my two young sons - ages 10 and 5 at the time - were responding to and coping with what had occurred. It was the only way I knew how to address the situation. Words had failed me. I didn’t know how to respond to the tragedy myself; just as had been the case with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995,  I simply could not comprehend the enormity of the events of that dark day, could not fathom the depth of the kind of hatred that is apparently necessary to drive a person of ANY faith - Muslim, Christian, what have you - to act in such a profoundly evil way. 

And so - lacking any words of my own that might be adequate enough to comfort even myself, let alone anyone else - I watched and listened to my little boys and shared their response, in the hopes that the old adage about wisdom coming from the mouth of babes might actually have some merit after all.

I knew that column would never win any awards. I didn’t care. That wasn’t why I wrote it. I was looking for a emotional lifeline, some little bit of hope and encouragement that I might be able to cling onto and give me the confidence that, yes, we would get through this. I felt like I had found that glimmer of hope in my children, and I wanted to share it with others. And when I was finished writing that column, I felt like maybe I had in fact actually managed to share something worthwhile. I hoped so, anyway.

A lot of readers seemed to think that I had, and they told me so. One individual in particular did not, however, and was apparently so incensed that he took the time to sit down and compose a lengthy and rather nasty letter to the editor, complaining about how my wallowing in self-pity had added nothing to the national conversation and saying, in essence, “I don’t care how your children are coping.” 

It was the first of a number of such letters I would receive from this individual over the next four or five years, all of which spent more time making personal attacks upon me and the majority of which seemed to say, “How dare you not bow at the feet of George W. Bush and pledge undying allegiance?” After a while the letters stopped bothering me; each new missive was more bellicose and incoherent than the last, to the point of becoming comical to some degree, and over time I began to wonder if perhaps my self-appointed adversary might in fact be suffering from some form of dementia. Either that, or he was simply so eaten up by some sort of hatred and anger himself that he just could find no other way to express than to attack me. Either way, eventually I actually found myself feeling a little sorry for the poor fellow...

But I’ll admit it: I still get a little hot under the collar whenever I think about that very first venom-drenched letter from Walt Pralle. In part because this guy had belittled my children, and that’s not the sort of thing that is going to win you much in the way of favor with me. But also in part because his attack had been prompted by my very real inability to think of anything else to say. I had been unable to give expression of my own anger, my own fears, my own sadness. 

Words had failed me.

It happened again when I first heard about the sniper attack in Dallas last Thursday night. I was struck numb by the senselessness of it all... not just the events of that night, but the events of the two days that preceded them. Two young black men shot and killed by police, seemingly without genuine provocation. A protest march in Dallas - one of several that took place across the country in the wake of the second shooting in Minnesota the day before - which by all accounts was peaceful and orderly, with a great deal of cooperation between those who organized and participated in the protest and the police officers who were on the scene to protect those people.

I saw an interview on television Friday morning with one of the church pastors who had helped organize the Dallas march. He spoke of his admiration and respect for the police officers who had been assigned to that event, and told of how a number of the protesters had actually posed for pictures with some of those officers. From this pastor’s description, and from other accounts as well,  it seemed to me that the march in Dallas had been the very picture of how such events SHOULD take place. Concerned citizens of all races and creeds coming together to express their indignation over injustice, without violence and under the protection of law enforcement. 

Proof that supporting your local police and taking a stand against police brutality or misconduct need not be mutually exclusive to one another. 

And then the madness started...

And again, words failed me.

It wasn’t simply that I could not think of anything to say. It was that the things I did think of to say might be mistakenly viewed by one side or the other as hurtful, or antagonistic, or an expression of hate towards either particular group of people that in reality I simply do not feel. 

Such is the State of the Union in this summer of 2016. We like to think we have made advances in our society, but the evidence so often suggests otherwise.

And no matter how you respond when things appear to be going to hell in a hand basket, you’re wrong. If you say “Black lives matter,” you’re automatically pegged as anti-police. Which is stupid and wrong. If you say instead “ALL lives matter,” you are automatically accused to denigrating African-Americans, Which is also stupid and wrong. We all bleed red...

When put on the spot by a friend, the only response I was able to summon up last Friday was a comment that had in fact been made by someone else years earlier:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

The speaker was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The sentiment is one that I share. 

But the only thing I can think of to add to the remark is one simple, solitary word: 


I wish that were enough...

(Copyright © 2016, by John Allen Small)