Alan Chartock | I Publius: Hyperbole roils reasonable discussion on terror

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GREAT BARRINGTON >> The problem is that when people become inflamed about some contemporary event, they often become hyperbolic.

It's easy enough to understand why — they feel passionate about the subject and might overreact in an effort to drive home their point. I was looking at the letters to the editor in this newspaper the other day and read a pretty well-reasoned letter about the dangers of the Islamic State.

I think most of us believe that the Islamic State is nothing more than a bunch of murdering thugs so most of the letter was on target. It reiterated what most of us think about those who have no compunction about murdering, decapitating and spreading fear and havoc.

It's all made worse by their very bad habit of recruiting and indoctrinating others who are willing to die for the cause. Whether those who want to establish an Islamic caliphate are willing to die themselves is yet another matter. I suspect that the top bad actors do not want to make their ultimate sacrifice.

In the case of our Eagle letter writer, the message was that "never again" was a pledge the world had made after the Nazi Holocaust. He ended the letter by saying of the Islamic State, "These people are 100 times worse than the Nazis ever were and better be dealt with accordingly."

Frankly, that sentence set me back on my heels. It was unnecessary hyperbole and an insult to all who have lost relatives at the hands of Hitler and his regime. It lowered the appropriateness and validity of his argument. The Nazis exterminated Jews and gays and many of their own people who fought back.

Estimates differ but we know that millions of people perished in the ovens and gas chambers. When you add in all the battlefield casualties, the Nazi regime and the consequences of their actions have been called the worst in history.

Nevertheless the Nazis were hardly alone in their campaign of what we now call ethnic cleansing. The list of such horrors is long and distressing. Many scholars think that the Nazi Holocaust was the worst example of genocide ever. That may or may not be true but one wonders whether this question ought to be turned into a contest.

Justifiable feedback

On yet another matter, I have been thinking lately about the democratic model we follow here in Massachusetts.

In our towns and villages the usual mode is a board of selectmen. They are in charge of running the town, delegating power and, in some cases, supervising a town manager. However, the annual town meetings are our top decision making bodies.

The problem is that all too often after we elect our officials we ignore what they do. They get used to operating with impunity and immunity and may actually start to resent input from the people who voted for them.

Obviously that's not the way the system should work. I have had some sharp words for those who voted on the Main Street reconstruction in Great Barrington. When I gave a pleasant shout out to one of them who I have always admired, he said something about my "rabble rousing" ways.

Citizenship doesn't come easily. When we allow bad decisions to be made without recompense, we have given up on the sensible model of democracy. When you start to resent your body politic it may be time for reconsideration, either by those in power or by the group of lazy citizens we may have all become.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.


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