What are we saying?

I've covered cops and courts for a lot of newspapers for a lot of years.

I got into that end of journalism voluntarily and with great enthusiasm about 25 years ago now. I was curious about the motivation of folks who crossed over societal lines the rest of us - however reluctantly we do so at times - stayed within.

I also thought if I wrote truly and accurately about the unnecessary violence in our midst, some folks on the edge of a bad act might restrain themselves, imbued with a caution they didn't even realize they possessed, all thanks to my writing.

I was, in other words, very young and imbued with a deep (some might say unrealistic) belief in the power of words.

But after 25 years of getting paid for writing, although I haven't lost my faith in language, I have learned to question whether most folks who read newspapers and magazines even halfheartedly worship in my Church of the Word.

For example, I recently sat in on a particularly nasty case of child molestation over in Kitsap County. The perpetrator - there was no doubt, he had confessed to assaulting (at least) two young children - was described by his attorney as a "nice, young man who just made a mistake."

Of course, that was a defense attorney, and (although I number one of that ilk among my best friends) I've come to believe that most of them will say anything if their fee is paid on time.

"Well, yes, judge, Mr. Hitler did have a little bit of trouble relating to his Jewish neighbors. But to characterize him as prejudiced.... He's a nice, Austrian gentleman, Your Honor. He just got carried away during his speeches because of all the torches. Fire excites him. It's a verifiable condition. He needs treatment. He shouldn't be punished for such an honest mistake."

The word "nice" in the defense attorney's speech is what caught my eye, and the word "mistake" is what kept my interest, but the truth is, we use both words far too often without much thought.

"He's a nice guy," folks say about co-workers and neighbors they don't really know. You discover the lack of depth in their knowledge if you push. Often what people really mean when they call someone they barely know "nice," is he hasn't bothered them in any significant way. He smiles when they smile, nods when they nod and hasn't stolen from them - at least not that they know of.

I would say, "He seems nice," or "So far, so good."

We often misuse the word "mistake" to protect ourselves or someone close to us: "I guess driving drunk that night I hit four innocent people was a mistake," we might say. Unless the error was yours, not ours, then we might call the same thing an "attack" or a "horrible action."

Now you might say that I'm overamping my little point, but if words were your business - even if your skill peaked at the pedestrian level, where my efforts often end up residing - you might feel differently.

I had a fitness-instructor friend in Sun Valley who could barely hide his contempt on visits outside that body-beautiful enclave when he saw overweight people with their hands wedged down a Dorito bag.

"Don't they know they only get one body?" was one of the nicer things he'd say.

In other ways he was a NICE guy. But he took his body and the bodies of those around him very seriously. Every unhealthy-looking person was an affront to him because he worked out religiously, ate carefully and valued nothing so much as a fine-looking human form.

There may be something slightly fanatical in such behavior, but I do understand it.

I don't know about you, but when I read a short story by John McGahern, the Irishman who would get my vote for the world's greatest, living, short-story writer, I can't help but think how futile my quest for writerly perfection has been.

But that's not the only feeling his beautifully powerful prose stirs in my still-apprenticed-to-words breast. McGahern's work also makes me want to read more, write more and even struggle to reach a slightly higher level of precision in expression myself.

Usually, sloppy, don't-give-a-damn writing strikes my ear like those junk-food-inflated exteriors blasted into my fitness guru's eye-space. But all sloppy language isn't indifference or sloth. Sloppy language, as it's lately used by our military spokespeople, is often purposeful, a smokescreen to hide their true intentions.

For example, a "preemptive strike" is really naked aggression, a sucker punch at the national level.

But you can understand why those armed propagandists for our way of life as the only way of life don't want to admit such callous brutality stems from nationalistic certainty.

That's not the same problem as saying John's a nice guy when we don't really even know him. The military uses jargon because they do still believe in the power of naked, Anglo-Saxon phrasing.

By intentionally obfuscating their linguistic approach to the rest of us, they are paying homage to clear expression.

Calling someone we don't really know "nice" is simply not caring enough about the question to think about our answer.

I guess I'm old-fashioned.

I love going to movies, but I'm often disappointed with what I see. I prefer books, and I often find myself judging people by what they read and don't read and how they express themselves on paper.

To me, it seems the height of vain foolishness to style our hair while ignoring what's under our coiffure.

You could argue I'm not a nice guy, I guess.

But if you do do, please don't make the mistake of not explaining yourself clearly.

Freelance writer DennisWilken can be reached at needitor@nwlink.com

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