A Matter of Words

It’s been a tough few weeks for those at the top of our federal law enforcement agencies. First, the announcement that Michele Leonhart, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, will be resigning next month amid fallout over scandal in her agency. Then FBI Director James Comey drew harsh criticism over remarks he made in a speech about the “murderers and accomplices of Germany” during the Holocaust. It was this latter story — a story about the importance of words, really– that stuck with us.

Comey was speaking at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. In his prepared remarks he stated that the Holocaust was “the most significant event in world history.” He then went on to describe the perpetrators of the killing of Jews when he said,

“In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do. That’s what people do. And that should truly frighten us.”

The inclusion of the nation states of Poland and Hungary, not surprisingly, drew the attention of the Polish Foreign Ministry, the Polish American Congress, and most recently the Hungarian Foreign Ministry.

What we found most interesting here was that the point Mr. Comey was making got lost. As Laurence Weinbaum, director of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations noted, the comments were “carelessly drafted, though presumably well-intended.” The point, which we think was meant, was that people have the capacity to convince themselves that no matter the evil, their actions can be justified — and that capacity is real and it should frighten us. But by over generalizing, by categorizing all people of the stated countries absent any space for delineations, explanation, specificity or context, and by not being more careful with the language the point was lost and damage was done.

Words matter. They are the weapon so many of us choose to use in advancing causes and doing good work. It’s important that we remember to choose them wisely.

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