Evaluating a Threat

Just a few preliminary words about why ‘gotcha’ phrases pulled from one person’s public statements are not automatically equivalent to another person’s.

It’s essential to know the context.

Working with the elderly, I hear many expressions of anger and depression from my patients. “Don’t get old.� they tell me. (Having missed the chance to die young and stay pretty I’ll just keep on keeping on.) I hear people say that they want to die. I hear people say that they want someone else to die.

It’s not something to laugh off just because they are old. It’s a problem and needs what remedy I can provide, inadequate as it usually is.

The first step is evaluation. Are they just venting their feelings, as everyone has a right to do sometimes? They are living with the knowledge that their time is limited, so of course they think about it and talk about it frankly. They don’t need to be lectured about a positive attitude.

But elderly suicide and self-neglect is a real problem. I don’t call the police when I hear this talk, but I do a quick check. Do they have the means? Do they have a plan? Does this feel real, is it recent, is it focused? If so, it’s no less an emergency than if they were a teenager, and I can’t leave without providing a plan for their safety.

Otherwise, I owe it to them to get them some help–to enlist their family, doctor or clergy in working with them. I’ve seen people brighten up and completely change their attitude when they finally got relief from chronic physical pain, so it’s never too late to improve your life.

But again, each statement needs to be taken in context of the person and their situation. I had to remove a nurse’s aid from a home because the elderly client made a threat and had the means. The aid would have stayed, but it was past my comfort level. I was not going to let her become collateral damage in a family dispute. Old doesn’t mean harmless.

In the wider context, Jeremiah Wright’s comments are not equivalent to James Hagee’s. The context of history, and the close relationship to the White House enjoyed by Hagee and his fellow evangelical leaders make Hagee’s statements more ominous. The context of history makes recent ‘mis-speaking’ and ‘jokes’ about political assassination a threat with credibility. We have the script, weapons are everywhere and politicians must meet face to face with their constituency.

I hope we are moving away from the narrative of the political martyr, and into a politics of engagement of all Americans, from all backgrounds. I hope we will see an America where all votes are counted and elections are decided with the ballot not the bullet.

But we’re not there yet, and recent loose talk should not be tolerated. Freedom of speech doesn’t cover threats.

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2 responses

  1. joe bernstein

    I don’t see a dime’s worth of difference between Hagee and Wright when it comes to the venemous nature of their comments.I dislike religious zealots of whatever denomination or sect.They make for a lot of misery in the world.I am a strong believer in an omnipotent Creator,but I won’t go with brand names.I think a lot of religious “leaders”are hypocrites,and others are looking for a way to avoid earning an honest living.I don’t feel that way about their followers who are mostly decent people looking for an answer to what they see going on in the world.Some of the mullahs sending young people out on suicide bombings come to mind.Why don’t they strap a load of dynamite on themselves?The Dalai Lama seems like a spiritual leader who is the real deal.I am not a Buddhist by the way.
    I will never vote for a President because of his endorsement nor condemnation by some religious leader.

  2. joe bernstein

    I noticed I spelled venomous wrong above-and that is really dumb for someone who likes reptiles.

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