NOTIONS: Twin standards of intolerance and mourning

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By the time this column hits newsstands, I’ll be in Manhattan with my son Austin (the writer), who’s been accepted for admission to a university there. As we have at competing institutions in Indiana, Michigan, Massachusetts and Chicago, we’ll sit through the dog-and-pony show, tour the campus, talk with financial aid and chat with professors and students.

A few weeks ago, it was Austin’s twin brother Zach (the photographer) who went college shopping. The three of us and one of my sons’ friends spent spring break in and around Los Angeles, where Zach’s been admitted to a renowned photography school. While Austin and his friend hit the beach, Zach and I sat through the dogand-pony show, toured the campus, talked with financial aid and chatted with the school’s president.

We returned from the Golden State just in time to catch the Don Imus scandal. In case you’ve been under a rock, the radio shock jock was discussing the NCAA women’s basketball championship when he called the Rutgers University team “nappy-headed hos.”

The racist description drew fire from the black community. The “whore” designation drew ire from women. And the dual outrage led advertisers to yank sponsorship of Imus’ show, MSNBC to bag its TV simulcast and CBS to cancel the program altogether.

In the wake of Imus’ firing, when interpersonal sensitivity and political correctness should have been at an all-time high, Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita traveled to Daviess County to address the all-white audience at the annual Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner.

During his remarks, Rokita noted that some 90 percent of blacks vote for Democrats. Then he said, “How can that be? Ninety to 10. Who’s the master and who’s the slave in that relationship?”

The racist comments, which were neither Lincolnesque nor Reaganesque, drew fire from blacks, whites and other shades of humanity. Among the commentators: Indianapolis radio host Amos Brown, who, when Rokita appeared on his program to apologize for what Rokita deemed “sloppy” phrasing, said, “What the hell were you thinking?”

Last Monday morning, my wife Cherí and I had to forgo the racist/sexist din to talk, instead, about death and taxes. No, nothing sad happened in our lives (except, perhaps, the Form 1040 I filed last week). Rather, we had to meet with our attorney about new wills.

So we chatted about what happens if Cherí “predeceases” me, and what happens if I “predecease” her, and what happens if we’re speeding down a New Jersey turnpike at 90 miles an hour, sans seat belts, and we “decease” simultaneously.

That afternoon, I logged onto my New York Times home page and found that death was going to be more than a hypothetical theme for the day. The lead story said that 33 people at Virginia Tech University had died in the nation’s worst-ever shooting spree.

In subsequent days, I learned that the victims were much like my own soon-to-be college students. Via media coverage, I heard from their classmates and siblings, parents and friends. I read and saw stories that made me want to know these young people and their teachers, stories that made me weep for them, stories that made me sad for lives too soon lost and potential that never will be realized.

Driving alone Wednesday afternoon, I listened on satellite radio as an arena full of mourning Virginia Tech students concluded a memorial ceremony by chanting, “Let’s go Hokies, Let’s go Hokies, Let’s go Hokies.” The tears fell anew.

But as more racism and violence sinks in, another question looms-a question of context, of literal and perceived distance and proximity, of our willingness to see less-evident human connections and feel equally needed empathy.

For while Imus and Rokita take it on the chin for their racist remarks, and while Imus is berated by women he’s degraded, we listen and read daily as radio hosts, conservative columnists and self-described people of faith hurl farworse epithets at gay and lesbian citizens with no repercussions or apologies.

And while we and our nation grieve the senseless deaths of Virginia Tech victims whose tales have been told with compassion and sensitivity, we rarely, if ever, see the same humanizing detail about the 32 or 63 or 98 or 127 equally innocent people murdered daily in Iraq. To us, they are merely numbers that appear and fade on the nightly news.

I don’t know what my sons will learn in the colleges they select. I don’t know what they’ll someday convey with their words and images. But I hope they learn that intolerance of one is intolerance of all. And I hope they learn that the senseless taking of human life, whether close to home or far away, is a loss equally worthy of contemplation and mourning.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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