LttE - Pollution of language
Submitted to the San Antonio Express-News on 27 March 2008:
The story about Chief McManus' recommendations for toughening the DWI laws was fine for what it was, a straightforward presentation of the Chief's recommendations, with some statistics and such. Obviously input from law enforcement is invaluable, but the people's representatives will still decide what to press for and what to leave on the back burner (thank God for separation of powers).
Cary Clack's accompanying opinion column about drunk drivers was a little bit "Boo!" and a little bit "let's take some personal responsibility", and was, for the most part, not too bad. Labeling people who make bad (possibly dangerous) decisions as "terrorists" toed the line of poor taste, but based on the very malleable definition of "terrorist" these days, it was just barely enough to start getting my hackles up.
Then letter-writers Jacque Petterson and Judy Halfant wrote in over the weekend and took it a step further. A like-minded Jerry Neely added his two cents in the following week. Each one of them leaped enthusiastically over the line and specifically called drunk drivers "murderers", something so callous and uncalled-for that neither Chief McManus nor Mr. Clack had the audacity to do likewise. Mr. Clack even specifically stated that killing is not a drunk driver's intent: "I was still at the mercy of countless other unintentional yet possible killers."
Causing someone's death does not make one a murderer. The dictionary definition of murder requires the element of intent - the taking of a life has to be purposefully done. State laws agree - and there are different degrees to account for premeditation - but provide for other charges like negligent homicide and manslaughter to punish those who've taken lives without intending to. To my knowledge (and I'm no lawyer), no one ever convicted of taking a life while driving drunk has been convicted of (or even charged with) murder.
Words are important. They're how we communicate and interact in the free marketplace of ideas that makes this country great. Words are like the currency, the medium of exchange, of that marketplace. Imagine what would happen if, in a grocery store, a customer tried to pay for an item with a $5 bill, only to find that the checker would only admit that the bill was worth $4. That's why it's so important that we temper our emotions when we contribute to the marketplace of ideas and make sure we use the words we choose with accuracy and precision. As the saying goes, we all need to call The Same Thing The Same Thing in order to make sense to each other and ensure that fellow citizens are treated fairly and equitably. Nowhere is the need for this more pronounced than in the casual tossing about of criminal charges by noninvolved parties.
I know "murderer" is easier to write and much more "zing!"-worthy than "negligent homicidal driver" or "manslaughterer", but please, let's at least try to keep the pollution of the language to a minimum.