In an otherwise evocative opinion column by Helen Ubiñas in the Philadelphia Inquirer, capturing the anguish so many Philadelphians feel about the murder and attempted murder of two unarmed security guards at the Macy’s in Center City, the author says this quite strange thing:
“We can debate poor retail theft policies and penalties all day long — and that’s usually most of what we do in Philly: talk. But what will any of those words or debates mean to Harrison’s loved ones — his mother and his three sisters, and a city full of people who can’t wrap their heads around a hardworking young man never making it back home?”
On the most basic level, of course, this statement is true. No words can erase this terrible tragedy. But beyond the irony of a writer about ideas declaring the pointlessness of writing about ideas, there’s a much deeper error involved here.
Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg didn’t bring back the dead, but they told the living, then and forever, why that ghastly loss was necessary, why it made the world a better place.
FDR‘s words the day after Pearl Harbor likewise didn’t change the horror of what happened or what would happen as a result, but they rallied a previously — only days before — divided nation into an unprecedented unity on behalf of unprecedentedly strong and effective action to save the world from tyranny.
Martin Luther King’s words at the March on Washington, didn’t literally cause the walls of segregation to tumble down, but who can doubt that those words indeed did break through those walls as nothing before ever had?
At the end of the day our societies are, and people in them behave, as the words and ideas contained in those words show us as individuals how we should live our lives. The words and the ideas they carry create everything.
I’m now a 62-year-old Philadelphian. I have visited the Macy’s at 13th and Chestnut – which I will forever think of as Wanamaker‘s — almost every year of my life and stood, even to this day, in childlike wonderment at the low tech twinkly Christmas lights display in the Grand Court. It’s a magical space, regardless of one’s faith or background.
I know why nothing like this act of barbarism — young men brutally butchered with a knife because someone wanted to steal hats – has happened in any of my previous 61 years, but now has happened.
And that reason has to do with words and ideas.
Getting a job and working hard to save to move out of your mom’s place into your own first apartment, as the murdered Eric Harrison was doing, used to be called being a good man. It used to be something about which everyone would be proud and everyone would support.
No one ever said, until a few years ago, that acting this way was “acting white“ or that, by contrast, stealing whatever you want from stores is some sort of justified act of resistance against an unjust society, some sort of reparations for historical wrongs.
But wasn’t this just some crazy lone assailant? Did the upside-down morality of wokeness really matter here?
No, and damned straight!
Have there never been crazy people in Macy’s before in the century plus standing at that corner? There most certainly have.
Has poverty in the city never been real before or actually worse than today (when people with advanced portable computers in their pockets and expensive shoes on their feet could not have been called poor)? It most certainly has been.
But this never happened before.
Poverty makes no one become a murderer and even the great majority of crazy people are constrained, most of the time, at least to some degree, by the force of social norms, by the conscience which people used to have reinforced by the discomfort that used to be caused to people from social stigma.
Now, shame has died, and an illiberal ideology — mistaken words, conveying evil ideas —has taken hold. It celebrates destruction of property and people, in pursuit of “equity”, “from the river to the sea.”
Until truer words, conveying better ideas, re-win the day, none of us are safe, even in a magical place at Christmastime.
Craig Snyder is CEO of Indigo Global Corporation and a former Chief of Staff to Senator Arlen Specter