Traversing the centuries from the days the Buddha walked this earth to contemporary times, it’s not difficult to find examples of what can go wrong in our relations when we fail to speak with compassion or repeat lies. A few months ago, the NY Times published depositions of Alex Jones, owner of the Infowars website best known for its promotion of conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012. If you have forgotten the details, a young man fatally shot 20 children between six and seven years old as well as six adult staff members. Since this tragedy, Jones’s website had been spreading a story claiming that the government staged this carnage and that no one actually died, suggesting that it had all been a hoax perpetrated by Barack Obama to scare people into supporting gun control.
While these claims were obviously false and demented, the consequences of these false stories proved significant. Like a virus, they spread on the internet. Gun rights advocates and people paranoid about government overreach began repeating them as though they were ironclad truth. Jones even published the addresses of the families who lost their children in the shooting. Soon they were being hounded with threats and contempt on social media that forced many of them to move multiple times and go into hiding.
To make matters worse, then-candidate Donald Trump appeared on Infowars during his presidential campaign and lavished praise on Alex Jones, saying that the conspiracy theorist had an “amazing” reputation and pledging not to let him down.i On February 20, 2017, the Newtown School Board wrote to President Trump. It urged him to recognize the murders of 26 people at Sandy Hook and to “remove your support from anyone who continues to insist that the tragedy was staged or not real.”ii Not surprisingly, Trump did not respond to the letter. Tragically, in late March 2019, Jeremy Richman, a father of one of the children murdered at Sandy Hook, took his own life. It’s not a big reach to assume that the torrent of hateful speech initiated by Infowars and facilitated by Trump’s own words contributed to his despair. Yes, lies and false innuendo destroy lives.
As an aside in this tragic tale, we have to wonder about the words that fed and fueled the gunman’s actions. We know from recent mass shootings that social media and hate-inspired websites have inspired the killers. Dylann Roof, who shot black churchgoers in Charleston, espoused all of the white nationalist rhetoric that has become normalized on the internet, embracing Nazi emblems and wrapping himself in the Confederate flag. Robert Bowers, the lone shooter in the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburg, was a frequent trafficker of conspiracy and white nationalist websites that preached hate against Jews. Hook, line, and sinker, he bought into the internet inspired story that Jews and HIAS, an organization that assists refugees around the world, were responsible for the scourge of immigrants Donald Trump said were supposedly coming to the United States to murder whites. Were Roof and Bowers unhinged? In both cases, experts found them to be sane, but it’s clear that psychologically they had become susceptible to stories that took them to the doorway of action. They felt justified to walk through that portal to perpetrate mass murder.
Many years ago, we had a young man helping us with some small restoration projects in our house. At the time, I had a home office, and we became quite friendly. One morning he announced that he was needing to put the projects on pause for a couple of days, saying he had to attend to some business at the courthouse. Kiddingly I joked, “You’re not going to jail, or anything, are you?” He just shook his head but didn’t say any more.
The next week when he resumed work, he filled in more of the story. About ten years previously, his best friend’s wife was murdered in her house, shot while napping in bed during the day. It didn’t take long for the police to zero in on a suspect—his friend, the husband. It appeared that he had taken out an insurance policy on her life just weeks earlier without her knowledge. He soon confessed. It was likely that a premeditated murder like this could mean only one thing—the death penalty. The police pressed him if there were any accomplices. They told him that if he had just hired the killer and not done the actual shooting, it’s likely the courts would spare his life. In a moment of desperation, he decided to lie, pointing the finger at his best friend since childhood, my handyman. That afternoon the police knocked on his door asking to come in to ask a few additional questions about the death of his friend’s wife. As soon as he stepped aside, they shoved him down to the floor, handcuffed him, and then tore his apartment apart, seeking to find the murder weapon.
Throughout this ordeal, he didn’t waver. He knew he was innocent, but no one would listen, not even his wife, who soon filed for divorce. The headlines were front and center on page one of the daily newspaper. The presiding judge considered this crime so heinous that he ordered he be held without bail. Things did not look good.
Six months later, his friend, the actual murderer, recanted his testimony, pointing the police in the direction of the murder weapon. My handyman was exonerated. Of course, this was now old news. The newspaper buried his release on the 17th page of the local section. He attempted to get his old job back, but they turned him down. No one would hire him.
To make matters worse, he’d run into people on the street, and they would see him coming and cross to the other side. His only choice was to leave town and attempt to build a new life where no one knew him or this story in which he was a collateral victim. A vicious lie had hijacked and destroyed his life.
To combat the injurious effects of stories, the Buddha formulated a five-fold approach to monitoring our speech. “It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”iii By focusing on this positive formula, we can ensure that we do not bring harm or spread ill will in the world through our speech and stories.