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Voices / Letters from readers

In newspapers, words matter

Editor Jeff Potter responds: Joyce Marcel originally wrote “murder” in the same sense that the writer uses in her letter, and so does not deserve the criticism on that point; I do. Because “murder” is precise legal terminology implying malicious, premeditated homicide, I changed the word to “homicide” on the advice of one stylebook, intending to convey the same meaning without convicting anybody in the pages of the newspaper. One website points out: “Homicide is the act of killing someone and does not necessarily denote a crime.” In developing protocols for writing directly and honestly about killings, slayings, or other premature death at the hands of another human being, we defer to the generally accepted style that we do not say a victim was murdered unless someone has been convicted in court.

This letter is in response to Joyce Marcel’s column (“We Were Lucky,” Sept. 7).

While I have no issue with most of her article — I enjoyed reading how she and others pulled through Hurricane Irene in tough Vermont fashion, and I agree that she, and others, could have had it much worse — I do think she could have chosen her words more carefully than she did in one particular paragraph.

In response to other unfortunate events that have recently happened in southeastern Vermont, Marcel wrote: “Over the past weeks, we’ve seen... the drug homicide where the woman’s body was found near the Dummerston Covered Bridge, then the assassination — in the Co-op, of all places! — of the manager by the wine buyer.”

As professional writers, it’s our obligation to choose our words carefully, especially when they are written for a newspaper. Even when we are writing a piece for “opinion” pages, where a little more latitude is allowed beyond “just the facts, ma’am,” it’s crucial for us to recognize what specific words say overtly, and “between the lines.”

As readers, we often look to newspapers not just for news, but to help us understand what’s going on behind the news stories, and that includes cultural attitudes about our neighbors.

When I read Marcel’s description of the incidents, it brought to mind an issue I’ve had with the community’s uneven reporting and treatment of the murders, and the difference in concern shown for the two victims.

I believe there is an obvious and sad — but hardly mentioned — class issue at play here. One murder victim is portrayed as being more worthy of our concern than the other, and I believe it’s because too many people believe one victim didn’t belong to the “right” class of people.

She didn’t work at the “right” profession. She didn’t live in the “right” town. She didn’t shop at the “right” store. She didn’t get a candlelight vigil that was advertised all over the place, attended by hundreds, with songs and hand-holding. She was a low-wage-earning native Vermonter with a very painful past few of us could fathom, let alone survive, and she was kidnapped and murdered by her romantic partner.

Where’s the outrage on her behalf?

Ms. Marcel, what on earth is a “drug homicide”? Nobody performed an act of homicide on a drug.

Likewise, drugs did not kill Melissa Barratt. A bullet killed Melissa Barratt. A bullet shot from a gun, held by a man. A man killed Melissa Barratt. (The same way Michael Martin met his end: a man shot him with a gun. Both are horrible acts that have no place in a civil society.)

And the way Barratt died was because someone murdered her. “Homicide” is a legal term used to explain a death by one person, committed by another. Homicide does not always equal murder. The act of homicide can be justified, at least from a legal standpoint; it can also be an accident.

But murder is murder. The inexcusable, undeserved end of one person’s life, by the hand of another, on purpose. Neither of the murders we’re talking about here were justified.

To me, calling Ms. Barratt’s death a “drug homicide” puts the writer — and the reader — at arm’s length from the shock of the act. It’s sanitizing, bureaucratic language. It depersonalizes the victim. “Collateral damage” instead of “people we killed who aren’t soldiers.” “Intelligence-gathering” instead of “we’re spying on them.”

No, Ms. Marcel, not a “drug homicide.”

Murder.

Melissa Barratt was murdered. A pleasant, laughing woman who made the best calzones of anyone at Frankie’s, and who was taking care of her sister’s child, and who had a sweet, round face, was murdered. A man shot her with a gun. Please, let’s not mince words.

Then, Marcel goes on to describe the second murder as an “assassination.”

Really? I am aware that Michael Martin was a husband and a father with many friends who miss him terribly, and he was killed while he was at work, helping to manage the Brattleboro Food Co-op, but I did not realize he was an elected official or other public figure who was murdered to further a political gain.

I mean no disrespect to the memory of Mr. Martin, but to call his murder an assassination is to assign him a position in society he did not hold.

The man was trying to do his job. A hard one, for sure. And not one that should have cost him his life. But he was not a president or a king. He was a human being trying to make his way in the world, just like Melissa Barratt. Just like the rest of us.

Again, the power of language.

Marcel, by her choice of words, lowered Ms. Barratt’s worth as a human being: she was a “drug homicide.”

Why not say Ms. Barratt was assassinated, too? Or anyone else who has suffered the terrifying misfortune of being felled by the hand of another? Are some people’s lives worth more than others?

Woe to the memory of anyone in the future who is murdered in or around Brattleboro. Unless you belong to the “right” group of people, you might just be more “collateral damage.”

Wendy M. Levy
Pahaquarry, N.J.

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Editor’s note: Our terms of service require you to use your real names. We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We also consider your comments for the letters column in the print newspaper.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #120 (Wednesday, September 28, 2011).

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