I don’t think I’ve ever been as heartbroken by anything as I was, last night, by thevideo of Richard Martinez, whose twenty-year-old son, Christopher, a college student at the University of California Santa Barbara, had been murdered the day before. Christopher and six others were killed in a mass shooting near campus. That I have a twenty-year-old son who is also a college student makes an empathetic response easy, almost obligatory—but I suspect that many others felt the same way, and that they felt this way because they were hearing a hard truth spoken clearly. Martinez, almost overcome with a grief that he knows and we know will never fade, not for as long as he lives, still struggled to speak sanely in that moment. And so there was something almost heartening amid the heartbreak. Richard Martinez, in the height of his grief, somehow did the hardest thing there is, and that is to find the courage to speak a painful truth: “Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the N.R.A.,” he said. “They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, ‘Stop this madness; we don’t have to live like this?’ Too many have died. We should say to ourselves: not one more.”
Christopher died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the N.R.A. That’s true. That the killer in question was in the grip of a mad, woman-hating ideology, or that he was also capable of stabbing someone to death with a knife, are peripheral issues to the central one of a gun culture that has struck the Martinez family and ruined their lives. (The shooter, Elliot Rodger, had three semi-automatic handguns that, according to the Los Angeles Times, he’d purchased legally.) Why did Christopher Michael-Martinez die? Because the N.R.A. and the politicians they intimidate enable people to get their hands on weapons and ammunition whose only purpose is to kill other people as quickly and as lethally as possible. How do we know that they are the ‘because’ in this? Because every other modern country has suffered from the same kinds of killings, from the same kinds of sick kids, and every other country has changed its laws to stop them from happening again, and in every other country it hasn’t happened again. (Australia is the clearest case—a horrific gun massacre, new laws, no more gun massacres—but the same is true of Canada, Great Britain, you name it.)
Martinez’s brave words put me in mind of a simple point, which I failed to make in a long essay about language this week, or didn’t make strongly enough. The war against euphemism and cliché matters not because we can guarantee that eliminating them will help us speak nothing but the truth but, rather, because eliminating them from our language is an act of courage that helps us get just a little closer to the truth. Clear speech takes courage. Every time we tell the truth about a subject that attracts a lot of lies, we advance the sanity of the nation. Plain speech matters because when we speak clearly we are more likely to speak truth than when we retreat into slogan and euphemism; avoiding euphemism takes courage because it almost always points plainly to responsibility. To say “torture” instead of “enhanced interrogation” is hard, because it means that someone we placed in power was a torturer. That’s a hard truth and a brutal responsibility to accept. But it’s so.
Speaking clearly also lets us examine the elements of a proposition plainly. We know that slogans masquerading as plain speech are mere rhetoric because, on a moment’s inspection, they reveal themselves to be absurd. “The best answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” reveals itself to be a lie on a single inspection: the best answer is to not let the bad guy have a gun. “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” No: obviously, people with guns kill more people than people without them. Why not ban knives or cars, which can be instruments of death, too? Because these things were designed to help people do things other than kill people. “Gun control” means controlling those things whose first purpose is to help people kill other people. (I’ve written at length about farmers and hunting rifles, and of how they’re properly controlled in Canada. In any case, if guns were controlled merely as well as cars and alcohol, we’d be a long way along.) And the idea that you can be pro-life and still be pro-gun: if your primary concern is actually with the sacredness of life, then you have to stand with Richard Martinez, in memory of his son.
There, that isn’t hard, is it? The war against euphemism matters most because it forces us to look at the truth we already know. The actual consequences of the N.R.A. and the gun policy it frightens those craven politicians into sponsoring is the death of kids like Christopher Michael-Martinez. This truth may not triumph tomorrow, but the truth remains the truth. It would be nice if the President, who knows all this perfectly well, put aside his conciliatory manner and his search for consensus and just said it. Speak up, Mr. President! Speak plainly. Just say, “Last night, I heard Chris’s dad. He’s right.”