About that question: Can words kill people?


I generally stay away from “people being beastly on the internet” stories because I’m just too busy with politics, policy and pop culture.

But this past week there were two horror stories that totally boggled what little mind I allowed to get distracted by them. Ironically, we had just had a discussion about cruel and unusual punishment when a prime candidate for such treatment was in the news: The monster who dangled his baby out a 15th-story window in a bid for Facebook “likes.” (Note that my link is to the Daily Mail, which seems the perfect setting for such a story.) You know how FB recently added those alternatives to “like”? For this guy, they need to add an “If I ever meet you in person, I’m breaking both of your arms so you can’t do that again” button.

Then there was the case Kathleen Parker wrote about under the headline, “Can words kill people?” It’s about “Michelle Carter’s conviction last week on involuntary-manslaughter charges in the 2014 suicide of her 18-year-old boyfriend, Conrad Roy III.” Excerpt:

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?…

Kathleen concluded that no, it isn’t. I was unsatisfied with that conclusion.

The columnist asks, “Manslaughter? Evil? Or just dumb?” The best of the three would seem to be evil. You read the words she wrote to this boy on the edge, and your blood runs cold. Mine does, anyway.

In terms of how to approach such a thing in the criminal justice system, manslaughter seems inaccurate. And I’m not sure how the law works on aiding and abetting. What should be the charge for being a cheerleader at a boy’s death?

There is evidently something essential missing in this girl, and at the very least it seems she should be confined somewhere until experts can figure out what it is, and whether it’s possible to fill that void.

Because anyone who will do what she did — repeatedly, insistently, matter-of-factly — is dangerous….

8 thoughts on “About that question: Can words kill people?

  1. Karen Pearson

    Words can’t kill. Tell that to Thomas a Beckett. Or tell it to the 6 milliion Jew who died thanks to Hitler’s words. Words are one of the most lethel weapons available.

    1. Doug Ross

      Seriously? Words? I’d think action is required… otherwise we’d have a lot of dead bodies lying around from people saying “I could KILL you!”

      This girl was evil but it’s not manslaughter in my view. I Ultimately it was the boy who made the decision.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I was expecting Doug to be more dismissive than that. After all, it’s just words, and they’re not important, right?

        But instead, he ends up about where I do. I don’t know what you call what she did (other than being Death’s cheerleader), but she’s evil… and I would add, disturbed.

        Something else Doug and I tend to agree on, more or less: Only people who are a danger to others — or themselves — should be incarcerated. He might not agree in this case, but I think she’s incredibly dangerous, at least to the next depressed boy she meets. But I wouldn’t put her in jail; I’d confine her to a hospital…

        1. Bob Amundson

          A square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t always a square. Evil is “disturbed” (i.e., mentally ill), but disturbed is not always evil. It is unethical for me to make that judgement without having interacted with her.

          But words do matter; the must disturbed children I’ve dealt with were emotional abused, not physically abused. My guess is that both of these children (legally at the time of the incident for the “perp”) were emotionally abused.

  2. bud

    Charles Manson didn’t kill Sharon Tate but was convicted of her murder. His words constituted a crime. This isn’t exactly the same thing but it does rise to the level of a crime. Words do matter.

  3. Jeff Mobley

    This is such a sad and strange case. In my mind, I ask the question: If she had not urged him to go through with the suicide when he had exited the vehicle and was having second thoughts, would he have re-entered the vehicle?

    It seems to me that he was in a vulnerable state and that she had some influence on him. That doesn’t mean she held total sway over him, of course.

    I don’t know. It seems like more than gross negligence or reckless endangerment. Involuntary manslaughter? I’m not sure. But let’s just say I’m not inclined to stage a protest over that fact that she was convicted. And yes, her behavior was evil.

  4. Bart Rogers

    Go back and read Obama’s speech about “words, just words”. Then come back with an answer. I think it was one of his best speeches. Words do matter. They can encourage, discourage, disparage, uplift, and do good or evil depending on what the words are, how they are used, and when they are used.

    This young lady may not have understood or has the morality to understand the difference between good and evil but what she did was evil and if she had not encouraged the young boy to get back in the truck and carry out his threat, he would probably still be alive today. But she made a choice and she choose to encourage him to follow through and commit suicide. She was held accountable for her choice as she should have been and the sentence was justified.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *