Words have power

Friday, October 12
Language and symbols matter. For evidence, look no further than the furor created by the nooses hung from a schoolyard tree in Jena, La., or to the debate in Congress over whether to declare Turkey's mass killings of Armenians in World War I an act of genocide.

A noose is a talisman of America's racist underpinnings. Its appearance in the present means the past is still very much alive, not only in the South but nationally, where we are locked in racial adolescence, unable to have a mature conversation about our legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

In Congress, politicians are again debating whether the systematic slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians constitutes genocide. Though many will dismiss this as a pointless exercise in political correctness, the outcome of this argument has real consequences. Turkey, always an insecure nation unsure of its place in the world, has long resisted any effort to tar her with the word "genocide." Turkey is threatening, if the resolution passes, to cancel arms deals with the United States and to end support for the Iraq war.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel — a friend and ally of Martin Luther King Jr.'s — argued that Christianity's condemnation of Jews in art and in words helped make the Holocaust possible. In 1961, he tried to convince the Vatican Council to declare that the Jews were not cursed by God for the murder of Jesus.

"Speech has power and few men realize that words do not fade," he wrote. "What starts out as a sound ends in a deed."

If we refuse to call the Jena nooses "racism" or the Armenian slaughter "genocide," we fail to speak the words that can stop the deed.


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