Of Course They Do

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Penance of Henry II

When he became King of England in 1154, at 21, Henry II named his childhood friend,Thomas Becket, his chancellor, something like a US President’s chief of staff. Seven years later, Henry promoted his friend to the post of Archbishop of Canterbury, hoping for Thomas’s help in bringing to heel a hierarchy of priests whose loyalty was to the Pope in Rome.

Instead, Thomas took the priests’ side. There followed three years of wrangling between the two, and another six during which Thomas lived in France, in voluntary exile. Things calmed down sufficiently, he thought, for Thomas to return to Canterbury, in 1170. Again he angered the king. Oral tradition quotes Henry as exclaiming,

Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?

For the sake of accuracy, I must tell you that the contemporary biographer Edward Grim, writing in Latin, reported Henry as saying

What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?

Whether Henry said this, that, or another of the many variations that have turned up in the story’s telling, the import was a clear command in the minds of four of Henry’s knights. A few days after Christmas, they went to Canterbury and assassinated Thomas, whom the Pope named a saint a few years later.

Did Henry’s words inspire the four to murder Becket? The king thought so; as an act of penitence he clothed himself in sackcloth and ashes and fasted for three days.

Do the words of contemporary politicians, celebrities, and others who can get the media’s attention (or who work in the media themselves) stimulate people to action? Of course they do.

The movie trope of the elderly southern white man in the general store saying of a young black, “That boy’s getting too uppity. Somebody ought to take care of him,” and the strange fruit swinging from a tree in the next scene, is no work of fiction.

Was there a connection between the venom broadcast on the public airwaves against George Tiller and Barnett Slepian and their murders? Of course there was.

When Barack Obama said, in his memorial service speech in Tucson last week, that “the truth is none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack,” he was being factually accurate and conciliatory at the same time.

Of course none of us can know exactly, but to argue that cross-hairs on congressional district maps, all the hateful talk about government that has been going on since the days of Ronald Reagan, the sight of people wearing firearms to presidential appearances – to say they have nothing to do with the carnage in Tucson is an act of denial or delusional thinking that we cannot afford to let stand.

And it’s not over. Here are a few of the threats and incitements to violence that have been uttered in recent days in relation to an ongoing incident and the person at the center of it – whose name I will not write here lest I contribute to another horror.

There’s only one way to do it: illegally shoot the s-o-b.

I think [deleted] should be assassinated, actually.

Why wasn’t [deleted] garroted in his hotel room years ago?

Can we have a CIA agent with a sniper rifle rattle a bullet around his skull the next time he appears in public as a warning? You bet we can….

Why can’t we use our various assets to harass, snatch or neutralize [deleted] and his collaborators, wherever they are?

Do you think for one minute that “neutralize” in the last quote means the speaker thinks that “our various assets” (that means spies and contract killers) should be expected to scare the object of this venom into finding another line of work?

And “rattle a bullet around his skull…as a warning?” There are no bullets that rattle around people’s skulls, but there are bullets that rattle around in people’s skulls. And as a warning to whom? To others who disagree with the US government? Who want it to be better than it is?

Well, that would describe me, friends. And maybe you. Lots of us. Maybe we’re not effective enough to be targets. But what if we grew in numbers to the point where people had to pay attention to our demands for free speech, even when it’s inconvenient and embarrassing?

What then?  Will they come after us, too? Is this what the great United States of America is coming to?

Do these words counseling violence as the way to force conformity get the attention of those who are armed and dangerous?

Of course they do.

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