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The wrong lesson was learned

Guest Opinion By Francis Shrum

March 20, 2008
A cursory review of the various weapons that men have used against one another through the centuries is pretty instructive. We're a brutal lot.

As civilization has "progressed," we've come up with an impressive array of weapons, including submachine guns, armored fighting vehicles, nuclear bombs and missiles, biological weapons, even super weapons that utilize electronics and lasers.

Still, of all these weapons the most destructive is the one that each of us was born with, fully functional and ready to use at will once we reach the age at which we can talk.

This weapon is our tongue.

It must be complemented, of course, by another necessary component to achieve its most destructive potential — the human ear.

The use of the human tongue to its most devastating effect has been perfected in the arena of political competition. The ongoing presidential wrestling match is no exception. The use of electronic media has only enhanced the efficiency.

Each time defamatory information is heard by a willing recipient it gets carried and disseminated: "Did you hear about ?" It works like germ warfare. Those infected will infect others.

There have been those who achieved such success in the field of biological gossip that they became legendary. Prominent among those is Lee Atwater, otherwise known as the "happy hitman." The Republican strategists slanderous "bare-knuckle and backroom" tactics won him acclaim during the 1980s by exploiting sensitive and damaging information about his candidate's opponents — whether it was true or not.

The lessons he taught were so destructive and successful that he still has disciples who study — and implement — his strategies.

As so often happens, though, the destroyer became the destroyed when Atwater was diagnosed with a brain tumor — and as also is common, he experienced a dramatic change of heart on his deathbed.

He found religion and issued a series of public and written apologies to people he had attacked during his career.

As poignant in repentance as he was subversive in political tactics, Atwater wrote an amazing passage published in Life Magazine in February 1991:

"My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me — a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The '80s were about acquiring — acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime.

"I don't know who will lead us through the '90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul."

Powerful words from an influential teacher. Unfortunately, the second lesson came too late. His change of heart could not unteach the first lesson. The damage was done.

The lid to Pandora's box had long ago been flung wide, and the lesson the eager pupils rush to learn is the wrong one.

Francis Shrum is a columnist who writes for King Features Syndicate.

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