When I was in high school, I experienced the honor of my life by serving as a page on the floor of the U.S. Senate. I had the privilege of a literal front-row seat watching democracy in action, as the will of our nation’s voters was expressed through their duly elected representatives. I remember raising my hand and swearing allegiance and to pledging to defend our constitution and great country. How proud I am that my son now serves our state and nation as a U.S. Senate aide.
The vile attack on the U.S. Capitol and our democratic way of life should not have surprised anyone. The ugly rhetoric, threats, and political discourse of the last several years have brought us to this moment.
One only has to look to recent statements targeting our own Wisconsin Supreme Court justices and their staff and our member attorneys representing both the President and President-elect.
These included threats of violence and personal attacks in emails, anonymous voicemails, and blog posts. Among many disturbing words, justices were referred to as “terrorist,” “traitor,” and “tyrant bitch.” Of even greater concern were the vehement anti-Semitic attacks toward individual members of the court. The threats were so serious that some justices received extra security.
In response to these threats, State Bar of Wisconsin leadership put out a statement that said, in part, “We denounce vicious personal attacks targeting Wisconsin Supreme Court justices and any judge for the decisions they are asked to make while upholding our Constitution and the rule of law.”
One State Bar member took us to task by referencing the old childhood adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” He did not agree with our premise, stating, “however impolite the terminology … these are not threats of acts of violence.”
We are all entitled to express our own opinions, as guaranteed by the First Amendment. It is the bedrock of our democracy. But as I watched the attempt to subvert the will of the people, and the desecration, destruction, and deaths that followed, this member’s words echoed through my head.
The words and rhetoric people choose, particularly those in positions of authority, indeed do matter. To think otherwise is to be naive. With our First Amendment rights comes a responsibility not to use our words to incite violence and bring harm to other people. The culmination of threatening words and misinformation led us to this moment, and we must acknowledge it.
We cannot stay silent when any member of the legal profession or public official is attacked or threatened for their work in protecting the rule of law. No one should live in fear for doing their job.
A threat to one is a threat to all. Staying silent to these ugly actions is a detriment to the independence of our judiciary, our entire system of justice, and indeed to all our democratic institutions. Now is the time for all of us to stand together to condemn acts of intolerance and hate in any form.
Yes, words do matter.