I was raised with an old saying that I should be careful with what I said, because it might come back to bite me. I am not sure that I ever knew exactly what that meant, but the fear of the bite was enough that I chose my words carefully.
Even as an adult, with a little better understanding of the phrase, I still choose my words carefully. We should never be afraid to state our opinions. After all, that is what separates our country from the rest of the world to a large extent. We can talk about whoever or whatever we want.
But, even in the most free society on the face of the earth, we should be very careful when we make comments that are not true and are not based on fact. Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten this and now people will spout false statements as if they were the Gospel. We now state opinions based on few facts or complete misinformation, yet we present it in a way as if we had been an eyewitness to every piece of the story. This is where we often step over the line of what we have always been taught to avoid.
The difference today is that we seldom hold people accountable for their statements. There is no longer any incentive that would prevent someone from choosing their words wisely. Even when confronted with facts to the contrary, we stand behind our original statements. Isn't this the way the tabloids do business? I guess if it is OK with them, it must be OK for all of us. Is this what we really want?
We are, by now, all familiar with the Taser case in Gwinnett County. The case has been told and retold, hashed and rehashed, and many opinions written by many different people about what they think happen. This is all a good thing. That is what our country's open press is all about.
I have sat by and read some things that I knew were not accurate but accepted them as the author's opinion. Lately, however, some of these opinions have taken a turn where personal attacks have been leveled.
I have recently read comments calling Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter a liar and that the lack of prosecution, on his part, was nothing more than a racist act. Whether you believe that the case should be prosecuted or not, is an opinion that each of us has the right to form. However, it is not a right to make statements about Porter's character, based on one's opinion of the case, especially when the statements are in complete conflict with his entire career.
I have seen many people, over the years, who were either happy or disappointed based on the decisions that have been made by Porter concerning their case. However, based on those ranges of emotion, by family members of all races, this is the first time that anyone has ever attacked his honesty or accused him of an act that is contrary to his background.
These are words that should be used when warranted. They are serious descriptors that should be accompanied by factual information. They are not words that should be used to gain attention to a cause that has nothing to do with race or honesty but is based on evidentiary matters. If there are those who are in opposition to his findings of the evidence, then let them voice their objections in that regard. But to attack one's character, especially one whose entire career has been based upon an undisputable reputation of ethical and moral fiber, simply to cause question to a prosecutorial decision is unforgivable.
We should all exercise our freedom to speak our minds and certainly to air our opinions. Our society depends on this practice as a checks and balances system. But, when we make statements about someone's character that is without merit or factual evidence, and is simply not true, we should expect to be held accountable.
Another old saying that is appropriate in this matter is that actions speak louder than words. And in this case, the words liar and racism based on their misuse, while powerful in definition, pale in comparison to the unblemished actions of the past 25 years.
Stan Hall is the director of the Victim Witness Program for the Gwinnett County District Attorney's Office.