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Worst Sort Of Jail Fabricated Of Ignorance

Thu., Feb. 16, 1995

The surprising thing is how infrequently they crawl out from under their rocks. But one of them did. He managed to muster enough skill and energy to dial a telephone and frighten a secretary at my office with his promise to kill me.

Perhaps his greatest fault is that he lacked imagination. His vitriol was nothing but a dismal repeat of low-level threats that come from some of life’s most unfortunate beings pretending to be a member of the human species.

It’s not the first time he’s called, nor, I suspect, will it be the last. Some people find thrills in the most bizarre behavior. But when people live empty lives, it doesn’t take much to excite them. Such men get their kicks trying to stir up trouble. They wage little private wars against imagined enemies.

This time, he didn’t bother to shout, but spoke in poorly formed sentences in a deliberate manner that must have made him feel as if he were John Wayne-tough.

He had his little say and ended it with a promise to kill me, though he never took the trouble to say why. He didn’t aim his barbs at any specific thought I expressed on this page, but generally condemned me and promised to put an end to my convictions.

He was angered, I suppose, that he lacks any ideas of his own, except to threaten to kill anybody who dares to disagree with whatever is at the base of his fears.

He is somewhere out there harboring a heart darkened by some enormous unhappiness that he apparently attributes to me. He sees himself as a victim and therefore he is a victim. He is, because no one can make anyone a victim without that person’s consent.

It is rare, in my experience, that people who threaten or try to bully others possess the courage to give their names. Occasionally, they’ll employ someone else’s name. But rarely their own. Their identification is their message - stark and dismal and nameless. They represent hatred and bigotry and that, for them, is enough identification.

The caller’s purpose, as far as I can tell, is to silence somebody else’s ideas, to stifle dissent and to inflict fear in someone he’s never met. But because of the overall ineffectiveness of his life, he achieves the precise opposite of his intent. He instills in me something far from fear - it is something much closer to pity.

Healthy citizens openly disagree all the time. I hear from people whose ideas differ vastly from my own. Some of them have been enlightening. But those with angry or shrill voices, or those who whisper from the shadows, seldom win me to their side. Their behavior, not their ideas, is what offends.

Such behavior is the way of cowards, people who cannot offer intelligent or interesting arguments so they commonly resort to name-calling. But even to do this well, some imagination is required. This caller wasn’t even interesting. He resorted to the same, tired and trite refrain that include words like “nigger,” and “garbage” and the like.

Until I received his salty message, I had never fully understood what a prison really is. He taught me in an instant that the worst kind of jail is not constructed from bricks and mortar and bars, but from ignorance.

Tuskegee’s alumni association recently presented me with an award that depicted Booker T. Washington’s symbol of education - lifting the veil of ignorance from the slave. But its symbolism was clarified by this lonely and terrified caller who relies on tantrums rather than intelligence to persuade.

Until one is liberated from the twin evils of ignorance and anger, one must endure the longest and harshest sentence imaginable - a life term without the possibility of parole.

From his voice, the caller is not a boy. Yet, he has not discovered a few of life’s basic lessons. One of them is that you can kill a man, but you cannot kill an idea.

Thousands of years of terror and pain did not eliminate the Jews. India won its independence from British colonialism after 90 years in 1947, largely on the basis of persistent non-violent protests led by Mohandas K. Gandhi. And in our own brief experience, 400 years of repression of African Americans have not extinguished their thirst for freedom.

Whatever a reader’s feelings may be concerning my views are fine with me. Everyone’s entitled to his opinion. If my ideas don’t sit well with you, simply turn the page. America is a large land, large enough to house men and women of high intelligence and also those high in moral turpitude.

Of the thousands of letters that reach my desk and the hundreds of calls to my numbers, very few are the kind that frighten secretaries. I had not realized how rare such individuals among us really are. This caller has demonstrated, by inverse example, how very decent most U.S. citizens are.

I am grateful to him for reminding me that most of us can disagree without becoming dangerously hostile. That’s what makes America so strong. For all our faults, a thread of decency is woven into the fabric of America. With that slender thread, despite the individual who recently dialed my number, we will find a way to weave together the strongest and healthiest nation in all of human history.


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