In news stories, one frequently sees or hears the phrase “brutal murder,” or words to that effect. Although I worked at a newspaper and in publishing, I have never taken a journalism course. My first year of teaching I was forced to teach a journalism course though I lacked any credentials aside from having been an English major and having worked on the school paper in junior high, as it was called then. But if I were to study or teach Journalism 101, “brutal murder” might be a good starting point.
I understand that some murders are more grisly than others. I comprehend that certain methods of violence are more heinous than others, and that the intent of such a phrase is meant to underscore that. And yet . . .
All murder would qualify as brutal, wouldn’t it? Whether the method is subtle or silent, or explicit and horrific, the result is the same. Nevertheless, the idea of brutal murder is worth pondering. Is a drone operator who is detached from the sounds and smells of execution any less murderous than one more directly involved? When combatants in World War I engaged in combat with soldiers close enough to see their eyes, was the result different? Or did personal proximity raise the remote possibility of peace, at least briefly and on a small scale? There are many accounts of Union and Confederate soldiers engaging in conversation, perhaps exchanging tobacco. But the grim truth is that the ravages of war continued.
Back to “brutal murder.” What do we mean by “brutal”? Are we referring to the look or the sound of the perpetrated act? Is it measured by the incalculable pain that is endured? Or the innocence of the victims?
Does war or insurrection get an exemption based on the assumption that war is brutal and murderous by definition?
Extending the notion, what roles do intent and context play? Surgical and precise terminations of life may seem less brutal owing to evidence unseen or unheard.
And what about the phrase “killing with kindness”? What is meant by that? More than a touch of irony emanates from that particular locution. Surely, we will never hear a news reader proclaim, “In other news, police are investigating a kindly murder at Peaceful Heights. The victim’s identity is unknown, but authorities were puzzled by the smile on the victim’s face.”
No, we will never hear or read anything like that at all.
Nor should we.
What’s my point? I am suggesting that words matter. They matter as stand-alone utterances and in combination with other words. The combinations matter, too, as much as the individual words. Implications exist. Legal bindings or loopholes, acts of war or declarations of peace, or life-long covenants hinge on both the mosaic arrangement of words and the very words themselves. Think of that jigsaw puzzle with one missing piece. It matters.
The same with words.
Am I a nut for attuning my ear to a simple and widely understood phrase? Perhaps, but not likely.
Failing to prick up our ears like a dog alert to a dog whistle means we run the risk of becoming deaf to meaning and subtlety. That opens the door to manipulation. To be honest, the door is already open.