Defining Moments: How Language Shapes Our Lives

Keeping sight of what matters

sprovost@thetribunenews.comApril 18, 2013 

We Americans are obsessed with labels. If you had any doubts, they should have been erased by a story that started making the rounds after the Boston Marathon bombings.

The top story on CNN’s website the day of the attack , naturally, dealt with the event itself. But the No. 2 story, just underneath it, focused on a single word not uttered by the president of the United States: terror . A day later, The New York Times devoted an entire article to the calculus behind the president’s decision to use the word.

Somehow, in the hours after an 8-year-old boy was killed waiting for his father at the finish line of an iconic race on a spring day in Massachusetts, this mattered. Somehow, on a day when some people lost limbs and others lost loved ones, this mattered.

Does it really?

In times of immense sorrow and tragedy, it’s difficult to put feelings into words. We feel a surge of compassion for those most deeply affected and a sense of sudden vulnerability: It could have been us. But it wasn’t, and seeing a photo of that 8-year-old child holding up a sign calling for people to stop hurting each other almost makes us wish it had been. We feel the rising anger at the injustice in the world, and a sense of hopelessness that asks, “When will this end?” and, more fatalistically, “Will it ever?”

Feelings such as this transcend labels, as they should. Human beings are not simple creatures, and attempts to distill our experiences into sound bites and one-word “answers” will never capture the richness of the human experience — or the excruciating pain of such experiences as the brutal, senseless carnage inflicted on innocent men, women and children on April 15.

You can call it a heinous, reprehensible or savage act. You can call it unspeakable cruelty or inhuman madness. Or you can call it terror. None of these labels begins to capture what happened this week in Boston or how it will affect the victims who survive, their families, the community and the nation.

Somehow, it seems callous and insensitive to sit around bickering about what it’s called and whether the president, the pope or your local representative did or didn’t use a specific word to describe it.

People are dead. People are wounded. Their families are grieving, and the nation is shaken.

This is what matters, not whether the president or anyone else uses some six-letter label whose usage seems to have become all but mandated in an age of political correctness.

The word, as it turns out, comes from a Latin verb “terreo,” meaning, “I frighten.” Yet the opposite is true for the people of Boston and this country in general. They, and we, have two great qualities exhibited time and again in the face of horrific cruelty: courage and determination.

This is where our focus should lie.

Terror is perhaps the last word that should be on our lips, because it gives voice to the ones who take pleasure in monstrous acts. They want our attention. We should not give it to them. Instead, we should attend to those who mourn, to those who ache, to those who seek solace in the aftermath of Monday’s attacks. Then, methodically and resolutely, we should make sure that the people who hurt them never have a chance to hurt anybody else.

An 8-year-old boy is dead. So is a 29-year-old woman and a graduate student from China. More than 170 others were wounded, some critically, and some who lost limbs. Their families, friends and a nation are grieving.

That’s what matters. Let us never lose sight of that.

Steve Provost is a Tribune copy editor.

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