Can words be lethal?
WASHINGTON – Words matter, journalists are fond of saying.
This comes lately in the context of presidential tweets that conceivably could have serious repercussions. Otherwise, we seem conflicted about how much words should matter when used in a potentially consequential way among everyday people.
Political correctness, or ignorance, has caused us to discard words and expressions that some find offensive, despite the U.S. Constitution's protections for nearly every form of speech short of the "fire"-in-a-crowded-theater prohibition.
As a result, most people put up with objectionable "art" and inflammatory language in the interest of protecting the First Amendment's broader application. Thus, even "hate speech" – or a museum exhibit featuring "Piss Christ" – is grudgingly deemed less offensive or dangerous than abridgements to our liberties.
Too much free speech is better than too little, the courts have decided.
But what rules apply when a teenager allegedly persuades her boyfriend to kill himself? Aren't we free to say whatever we choose in a private conversation with another person?
Michelle Carter's conviction last week on involuntary manslaughter charges in the 2014 suicide of her 18-year-old boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, raises fresh questions about what one is allowed to say in private, as well as the role of virtual presence in modern conduct.
At the time of the suicide, Carter was a 17-year-old whose boyfriend spoke frequently of taking his own life. He finally did by filling his parked truck with carbon monoxide. Mind you, Carter was nowhere near. She had no physical hand in the death, although she did text and call Roy, urging him to go ahead and do it. When he had second thoughts and got out of his vehicle, she instructed him to get back in.
Manslaughter? Evil? Or just dumb?
If Carter's words were Roy's death sentence, then his death was hers, if not literally then, indeed, virtually. For her clearly tangential role, which one could as easily interpret as drama-queen excess, Carter faces up to 20 years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 3.
It is easy to feel outrage at what transpired. Prosecutors introduced hundreds of text messages between Roy and Carter in which she encouraged him to end his life and sometimes taunted him for his lack of courage. In one, she wrote: "You're ready and prepared. All you have to do is turn the generator on and you will be free and happy. No more pushing it off. No more waiting."
This alone is enough to make one dislike or even despise Carter. But is it enough to blame Carter for Roy's death? His parents think so, as do some of Roy's friends. At one point, Carter chillingly told Roy that his family would get over him. What could a teen possibly know about a mother's and father's love for their child? It was a cruel and possibly self-serving thing to say.
Other messages and conversations were equally repellent, but were they really persuasive? Or would Roy have killed himself anyway? Whatever the answer, the two were engaged in a deadly game that suggests a disturbing Hollywood aspect – drama in the guise of existential angst. Despair as aphrodisiac?
Who knows? What mothers of boys know and deeply respect is that females wield formidable power over males. In hushed tones, we often compare notes and agree that boys are really more vulnerable than girls. (P.S. For every person scrambling to send an exception, a thousand women are nodding their heads.)
My point: A girl like Michelle Carter has and did have power over a boy like Conrad Roy. As his mother said to "48 Hours" in an interview that aired the night of the conviction: "She knew exactly what she was doing and what she said."
This surely seems true, but then, teenage girls who seem "knowing" often don't have a clue. They may flirt with men – or death – to learn their own limits, but this doesn't mean they fully understand the consequences of their actions, and certainly not of their words. This isn't to excuse Carter's callousness or, frankly, her meanness toward a sad friend, whose suicide note to her revealed a sensitive, kind and loving person.
But what she said to Roy isn't – or shouldn't be – the crux of a legal argument. Not even her own sense of blame and remorse, as subsequently expressed in texts to friends, should be construed as legal guilt.
Carter may have been despicable for her damning encouragement, but we should be very clear: She didn't kill anyone. Words do matter, but they're not lethal.