Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Who Cares About Truth?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

A small lie can lead to war. Not by itself, but by the slow build-up of hateful rhetoric. One person makes an unsubstantiated assertion – for example, that a pizza parlor in Washington, DC is housing a pedophile operation run by a candidate for the US presidency. The lie spreads.

Someone on the other side believes it and decides to act, so he shows up with a gun to save the innocent children and fires a shot or two before realizing that he was wrong. A congressional candidate in Wisconsin (running against Paul Ryan) still believes this idiocy.

A candidate turned president lies about seemingly everything, calling Hispanic immigrants rapists and drug dealers. He pushes the idea that his predecessor was born in Africa and therefore not a legitimate president, buttressing his followers’ beliefs that the system is rigged against them.

He continues to assert that 5 million illegal votes were cast – all against him – despite zero evidence, because his ego demands feeding. Both his words and his actions suggest that women are less than human, objects to be desired or reviled, not equal to men of import, except perhaps his darling eldest daughter.

On the other side, a candidate says that you can put half her opponent’s supporters in a basket of deplorables, further entrenching those deplorables’ viewpoints that they’re under assault, and instilling in her supporters the notion that his followers had something wrong with them. Everyone who voted for him must be a racist, misogynist bully. It can’t be that they just didn’t trust her.

Both sides feel like they’re being attacked, like their very way of life is eroding. And it doesn’t help that we now have essentially instantaneous communication. So whenever a hateful comment gets posted, and then re-posted, it zooms around the world quickly.

Lies spread, especially when they seem believable, when they promote the idea that we are right, that our tribe is in fact under attack by those others, those lesser human beings, whether they be black or white or male or female or Muslim or Jew or gay or whatever.

So we fight back.

Fewer good jobs? Somebody says it must be the fault of foreigners coming in to take them away. It can’t be the system because the system worked for generations. It must be immigrants. And people latch onto that myth because it has the feel of truth even though it isn’t true for 95+ percent of the population.

There’s a certain freedom in spewing certitudes with your phone or tablet. And if someone calls you out for lying, you just scream louder, repeating yourself over and over until the other side gives up trying to reason with you, at which point you claim you’ve won because they surrendered. So take that.

Truth is what we believe it is, what we say it is. Facts can be twisted, subverted. We don’t play that game anymore of falling victim to elitist facts. We decide what truth is, and if you don’t like it, get the hell out of our city, county, state, country.

Compromise becomes a dirty word. Never surrender becomes the battle cry of all. And we swirl around the bowl, slowly sinking into the waste of hatred, riding the log of pride into the sewer.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Comfort vs. Growth

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We all like to feel comfortable. At the end of a long day, we want nothing more than to settle into the sofa and turn on the TV or pick up the smart phone and relax. Scroll through viewing or listening options and shut down the bombardments that have hammered us for the past 9 or 12 hours.

The last thing we want to do is tax our brains. They’ve been taxed already, ordered to comply with the dictates of our bosses or children or customers or teachers. So we just want to veg out. Chill. Maybe take the edge off with a glass of wine.

Hard to blame us. It’s been a long day. As was yesterday, and the day before.

There’s nothing wrong with that either, most of the time. Well, some of the time. But we can’t do it all the time, not every day, not if we want to improve our lives and the lives of those we care about.

When we sit in front of the idiot box for a few hours, our minds begin to get a little mushy. We start to think what we’re watching is not that bad, not absolute dreck. On rare occasions, we’re right. But so much of what we’re seeing offers nothing of substance. Yet we still watch.

Think of your grandparents and how they spend/spent their evenings. Were they glued to the television for hours after dinner? Unlikely. Sure, they didn’t have the number of options we have for escaping the world’s troubles. But that’s kind of the point.

With cable and satellite, with YouTube and Facebook and Instagram, we get pretty much any diversion we want. And when we succumb to those temptations, we surrender a tiny bit more of ourselves to the onrushing banalities that flood our senses.

Every day we demand a little less and every day we get a little less.

When I watch TV for more than an hour or two, I find myself growing restless. I stand and walk to the window, staring out at trees and houses, at birds and squirrels, at people walking past with dogs or babies, and occasionally I step outside to join them, to wander the neighborhood for a half hour rather than plopping back down to absorb the latest drivel.

But it takes effort. It’s so easy to just give in, to say I’ll walk or read tomorrow evening. Today I want to numb my brain. Yet every today’s procrastination becomes yesterday lost. Engaging with the world, however fleetingly, elevates us, and soon we find we would rather walk than sit. We’d rather wave at the neighbors as we stroll down the avenue than huddle in our dens of solitude, glowing lightwaves bouncing off our slack faces.



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Trusting the Police?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We all want to trust the police. We expect them to do what they’ve been asked to do by society – protect and serve. Yet it sometimes feels like they’re not on our side. I’m from Minnesota, where we had the Jamar Clark shooting, the Philando Castile shooting and now the Justine Damond shooting. Other states have their own tragedies to report.

According to the Washington Post, and as of the time I write this, there have been 559 people shot and killed by police in 2017. Does that seem like a lot? It seems like a lot to me.

Granted, many (perhaps nearly all) of these shootings were justified. Some (perhaps many) weren’t. But the problem doesn’t seem to be getting better. If anything, it’s getting worse.

Black people have been getting shot by the police for years. They’re fed up with it, rightfully so. As a result, a few radicals have decided to arm themselves and take out police officers in retaliation for what they see as a systemic devaluation of black lives. That belief is in some ways understandable.

But now, with police officers increasingly presenting as targets, they’re becoming scared of the communities they serve. Little things, like loud noises, might cause them to fire their weapons. Shoot first, ask questions later.

I’ve heard older white people, who never were much afraid of cops, saying, “Whatever you do, don’t call the police.” They were mostly joking. But there was an element of truth behind their words, a subconscious fear of the folks sworn to protect them.

This has, for years, been the attitude of minority communities. They want to be able to count on the police, but they know of numerous incidents where the very people they expected to resolve a problem created an even greater one, shooting someone who needed a different kind of intervention, a calmer response.

Hard to blame them for that attitude. I’d feel the same way if I were black or Hispanic or Asian, if I were an immigrant or Muslim or noticeably different than the police officers who might show up to help in a time of crisis. Even I, a white male, feel a twinge of fear on the rare occasions when I interact with cops.

After all, they have guns. And their attitude often reflects the power they wield. They intimidate and they question and they radiate tension and unease, like they’re one small occurrence away from violence. How can that not cause fear?

So they’re afraid and we’re afraid. One loud noise, one flash of light, can mean the difference between living and dying.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. But it will be for the foreseeable future. We can make small efforts to decrease the violence – greater training in de-escalation, greater interaction between police and the communities they serve, greater use of body cameras and other technology to create more transparency and accountability.

But we won’t do the one thing that will guarantee a decrease in gun violence because too many of us have too much reverence for the Second Amendment. That’s the society we have chosen to live in, but the result is that it’s hard to trust the police, just as it’s hard for the police to trust us. No one knows when the other side might pull a weapon and then a trigger.


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The Danger of Fantasy

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Our children don’t want to marry just anybody. They want soul mates, the perfect companions. And why not? We’ve been telling them for decades this is possible. We may not have said it directly, but nearly every book they read, nearly every movie they see, nearly every song they listen to suggests there’s such a thing as perfect love.

So that’s what they want.

But there’s no such thing as a perfect soulmate. Occasionally, someone finds a partner they define as perfect, but most of the time, that results from being desirous of a solid relationship and the ability to rationalize one’s partner as perfect for the sake of achieving the stability one seeks.

Let me explain.

If you want to be married and have a family, and if you are sufficiently attracted to someone, and if you manage to snag that someone, and if that someone is of a similar mindset, you begin to merge part of your being into them, just as they melt partly into you.

You become more alike in all the ways that matter and you eventually come to see the other person as your soulmate. But it didn’t start out that way. It probably started as lust or infatuation and took years to develop into that kind of relationship. Yes, there are exceptions. People who knew right away. But that is definitely not the norm.

If we look at arranged marriages, we see that they generally last longer than marriages born of love – having a much smaller divorce rate. This is partly due to other factors, of course, like the stigma of divorce in such societies, as well as the pressure applied by family members to make it work.

But with love marriages, the peak of emotion is often reached on or before the wedding day. The expectations are usually much greater, making it that much more difficult for the partners to live up to them.

As a result, more love marriages fall apart, more families become de-stabilized, more children grow up in broken homes, more bitterness and emotional detachment ensue. Our society struggles to maintain balance and optimistic growth. It begins to deteriorate, slowly, almost imperceptibly at first. But eventually we grow jaded because nothing seems to work out the way we want it to.

Our expectations, set too high, cannot be met. And yet we continue, in our art, to celebrate perfection, perpetuating a system that is impossible to achieve and/or sustain. We find ourselves continually disappointed by reality as we increasingly believe the myth that we can have it all.

What does this mean?

It means we’re headed for increased conflict, for even more sudden outbursts of violence by people who feel they’ve been left behind, people who think they’ve been cheated by their fellow citizens.

Every time we authors write a story that results in true love and eternal happiness, we add another layer of fluff to the millions of layers that have preceded it, each one pressing down just that little bit harder, smothering normality with the accumulated weight of countless airy fantasies.

And it’s not just art. Business interests, governmental authorities, societal and religious leaders all imply that we can have it all if we just play their game, abide by their rules (the rules that brought them to the top over the backs of the rest of us).

“Work hard and you too will get to the mountaintop.” Only it often doesn’t end up that way. We trust them because they’ve made it to where we want to go, but that doesn’t mean we’ll get there if we follow the same path. What worked before is not guaranteed to work again.

What’s the harm in a little fantasy?

Not much, only potentially everything.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Why We Vote Against Our Self-Interest

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We claim to be rational beings. We believe it fervently, noting the many logical reasons for why we think the way we do, why we act the way we do. Other people are nuts, sure. We see it all the time. But we are brilliant.

The truth, of course, is more complicated than that. When we vote against our own interests, we don’t believe we’re doing so. Each election involves many issues – guns, health care, immigration, taxes, the environment, abortion, national defense, business regulations, foreign policy, LGBTQ rights. The list goes on and on.

And when we vote, we tend to focus on one or two big issues. We usually vote the economy and one other large issue. We also tend to vote for the people we like more than the people we dislike, even though the truth is that we don’t really know the candidates at all (and never will) so our affinity for one person over another is actually not very rational. It’s subjective. Arbitrary. Based on things we’ve heard from other folks.

We like what Al Franken says about the environment. Or we hate what Al Franken says about the environment. But we have an emotional reaction to every candidate, either good or bad, and we then use our brains to craft logical arguments to justify our gut instincts.

When people say they don’t know who they’re going to vote for in an upcoming election, they’re usually either lying (to themselves or to you) or they truly haven’t decided on a candidate because they’re waiting for some sort of divine guidance, which never comes.

Regardless, not much careful consideration goes into the calculus. In the last presidential election, for example, I heard many people say that they hated both candidates and they planned to vote for the least objectionable one.

Is that rational?

Maybe, but it’s definitely not ideal. What it leads to is people picking candidates based on the hot buttons that really get them riled up. We believe what we want to believe, so we’re easily led to identify with one candidate or another based on their statements concerning whatever topics we feel most strongly about.

Candidates know this. They know they can’t win, for example, by talking about tailoring regulations to maximize economic efficiency as well as societal good. Yawn. Instead, they mention guns or abortion or some other topic that elicits strong feelings because that’s the only way to attract ardent supporters.

And when we vote based on those hot button topics, ignoring the many smaller issues we don’t deem critical, we often find we’ve acquired leaders who do things we never thought they’d do.

They usually can’t make the changes they promise on the big issues because the country is split right down the middle on most of them. So what we’re stuck with is little successes that nibble around the edges of what we want, little failures that erode our confidence in government.

And the next candidate (or more likely the same candidate) tells the same story in the next election cycle, promising what cannot be delivered, and we buy it. Meanwhile, the only ones who win are the big spenders, the companies or individuals with the deep pockets and the united fronts.

We occasionally get change, but generally not the change we desired. We believed their promises because we wanted to believe them, but our logical brains knew they were false. So we get what we deserve.


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The Thief Called Old Age

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Age is the thief that enters in youth, leaving small hacks behind, backdoors that allow it to enter anytime it desires. A scrape here, a broken bone there. Illness and injury that weaken the immune system, setting in motion a series of events that will lead to arthritis and diabetes, heart disease and dementia.

The blow to the head from a fall. The chicken pox that returns as shingles. The use of antibacterial soap that kills off healthy bacteria our bodies require to function properly, permitting evolved and dangerous germs to take their place.

We begin with such promise, such possibility, the world laid out before us, the urge to conquer and explore strong, innate. We hurtle forward to examine the butterfly and the toad, the mouse and the minnow, releasing our grip on our parents’ hands to find our own way.

I can do it myself, we protest. Often we’re wrong. A mess ensues. But we learn. Eventually we master it. In the process, however, something is lost to the thief, who latches on to our every failure, our every success, depositing another marker, another smattering of entropic decay into our shells.

Don’t get me wrong. I much prefer aging to the alternative. I gladly yield my body to the thief – well, not gladly, perhaps. But the good (who die young) miss out on the opportunity to have their vigor and strength, their energy and well-being, removed a minute portion at a time.

The thief works with almost infinite patience, burgling such a tiny amount with each visit that we go about our business mostly oblivious to it all until the day we want to get down on our knees to weed the garden or stand on the stool to paint the ceiling in the spare bedroom, which seems so much harder than the last time we did it.

And the next day (or the day after) we feel sore and fatigued. We notice pain in joints we hadn’t felt in precisely that way before. If we’re unlucky, we feel the twinge in our backs or shoulders or fingers even as we’re working, and maybe we have to stop to take a break, despite never having to take a rest before.

The chore becomes drawn out, extended to several days instead of just one, or we rush through the process, feeling like we got the bulk of the project, whatever it is, done. Good enough. It doesn’t have to be perfect any longer.

We don’t see the theft, even when we look in the mirror. We wonder who that is staring back at us, how it is that we young people have become trapped in the bodies of elderly and fragile creatures. Aliens.

We know, intellectually, that entropy wins in the end, but our emotional cores struggle against that truth. We fight it for years if we’re lucky, for decades. We kick and scream and rage against the decline, only surrendering when the inevitability of the darkness reaches beyond hope, the thief taking finally that last gift.

But the battle, the glorious battle of life, continues with the next generation, the strangers who share the molecules we breathe, hope passed down from one family to the next, an endless cycle of rebirth.


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The Importance of Lying

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

From a young age we’re told that it’s important to tell the truth, and there’s no question that truthfulness is important. We want to be able to trust what others tell us, and if they lie a lot, and if we uncover their lies, we can’t.

So truth is definitely something to strive for, most of the time.

But lies are almost as important as truth. No one has to tell us the importance of lies. We figure that out at an early age. The first time we do it and get away with it, the first time our brother or sister takes the fall for something we did, or the first time we take the fall for something they did, we understand the importance of lies.

Lies have power, just as truth has power.

A properly told lie can move people to do amazing and terrifying things.

Look at the Gulf of Tonkin incident during the Vietnam War, a fabricated incident to draw the US deeper into the conflict, to get Congress to authorize President Johnson to escalate our presence there.

Or more recently, the shooting at Comet Ping Pong by a North Carolina man who believed that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief were running a child sex ring out of the place – a belief fostered by conspiracy theories and blatant lies promulgated by people who wanted to ensure Clinton lost the election.

A good lie, or a series of good lies, can propel you to fantastic heights, even the presidency. And once there, more lies become one of the ways you hold onto power. Nixon famously claimed he was not a crook. Bill Clinton asserted that his presidency would be the most ethical in history.

George W. Bush – following his father, who asked us to read his lips (No new taxes, then raised them) – told us he would not be a nation builder, then became the largest nation builder in our history. Obama said he would lead a transparent administration and then didn’t.

Trump, well… what can I say about Trump and his many lies, too numerous to detail?

The point is, lying produces results just as well as, and sometimes better than, the truth. Lies offer us the opportunity to manipulate the people around us, to get them to do what we want them to do.

But even apart from malicious ends, lies serve important purposes. For example, we don’t tell our bosses what we really think of them because we want to keep our jobs and if we tell them the truth, we likely won’t. We don’t tell our friends and family that what they’re doing annoys or irritates us (at least, not all the time).

Sometimes we express ourselves honestly, but often that results in hurt feelings. And so the next time, we think twice before issuing a true statement about whether those pants make her look fat or if we mind that he’s going out to the bar with his friends again.

So when someone claims he doesn’t lie, when someone talks about how important honesty is, consider carefully what that really means. It may mean that the person really believes he tells the truth all the time. In that case, he either is defining truth differently than the rest of us would or he’s delusional or he’s trying to manipulate you.

We all lie. Not all the time (maybe not even often), and some of us only lie for good reasons, but we all lie. We do it because it’s a survival skill that’s been passed down from generation to generation. We’ve learned the power of the lie and we understand its importance.


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Life is Like a Merry Go Round

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

When I say that life is like a Merry Go Round, it may seem like a stretch, but bear with me. The earth spins and we each inhabit our little space upon it. We can move to another space, another seat that happens to be empty. A few of us can even hop off for a time, standing outside the Merry Go Round and looking upon it from, say, the moon or the space station, but we always come back to it.

We sit astride our horse or unicorn or lion or elephant, whichever one appeals to us, unless the one we want is taken, in which case we have to ride the donkey or the camel that’s missing part of its face. If we’re bullies, we might kick someone off the horse we wish to ride, making them sit on the floor or go back to another horse that doesn’t offer as much fun.

We don’t choose where we start on the Merry Go Round. That place is determined by our parents, who live in one particular section, on one particular horse. Most of us don’t get to ride the unicorn. That’s reserved for the few at the top, the ones who got there early and saved the spot, the ones whose parents made sure they had the advantages the rest of us didn’t get.

Some of us get in line early, our parents’ wealth allowing us to move to the front, where there’s less competition for the good seats. And some of us work hard, sprinting to our horses when the gate is lifted, determined to find the best place from which to look out at the passing world.

Once we’re on, we fly. We spin. Everything goes by so quickly. And we only go in one direction, forward in time. Sure you can go backward for a little while, flying west as fast as you can for as long as you can, but eventually you have to land, and then you move forward again, spinning into the future.

Most of us wish it would go on forever, that we could stay on our horse or get off and move to another horse, but keep spinning for a long, long time. We never want it to end because we don’t know if this is the last ride we’ll ever take or if there will be other opportunities.

Our parents/teachers promise we can do it again, but sometimes they lie so we don’t always trust them. We cling to the horse, some of us, peeled away kicking and screaming because we want to remain on this delightful apparatus.

Finally we exit the ride, sometimes of our own accord, but more often because the music stops, the spinning slows to zero and we must leave even though we’re not ready to depart. But others must have their turn; we can’t stay here forever and keep them from enjoying the experience we had.

Is there another ride? The Tilt A Whirl or the Roller Coaster or some other exciting/scary venture? That’s something we can’t know until we get off the Merry Go Round.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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The Limits of Human Ingenuity

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Throughout our history, we humans have been problem solvers. Of course, many of the problems we’ve had to solve have been problems of our own making, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that we have mostly found solutions to them.

But what’s interesting to me is how often we, knowing the solutions to problems, nevertheless decide to do nothing to change the situation for the better. For example, we know that getting regular exercise will make us healthier – increase our metabolism, decrease our blood pressure, improve our blood sugar levels – and yet many of us don’t exercise regularly.

The same applies to what we put in our mouths: we know eating lots of fruits and vegetables is healthier than a diet with lots of meat and processed food. Cooking at home is better than eating out. Kale and eggplant and broccoli are good; French fries and burgers and milkshakes are bad. Yet…

Why do we choose to ignore these problems? Largely because we don’t perceive these problems as problems. If I like hamburgers and playing video games rather than sipping water and munching on a carrot while I take a long walk, what’s the problem? If I have a heart attack and my doctor tells me I have to give up smoking or eat better or get some exercise, then I’ll do it – or at least I’ll consider it seriously. Until then, don’t bother me. Go preach to the rest of the world and leave me alone.

The planet is warming? I don’t really see a problem. I don’t notice any major difference in my life as a result. Sure, it doesn’t get as cold as it used to in the winter, and it seems like we’re having more flooding events, but other than that, no big deal.

Those nerdy scientists will figure something out if it becomes a big enough problem. They always find a solution eventually. So why should I have to pay an extra dollar a gallon for gasoline? Why should I have to pay an energy surcharge on my utility bill? That’s government overreach. Let’s wait till it becomes a problem and then we’ll fix it.

But of course, even though we’ve always come up with some sort of solution to our problems (or a solution has occurred regardless of our efforts – like with the 1918 flu, which just sort of faded away), that doesn’t mean a solution will always be possible. For millions of years the dinosaurs ruled the planet, escaping extinction many times.

Until the last time.

That same fate may befall us. Our executioner may be bacterial or viral. It may be a combination of causative events. It may be slow, a gradual diminishment of the population that tails off to nothing over hundreds of years.

But I suspect we are headed for an ending of sorts, a time when humans will no longer be the dominant species on the planet. It won’t happen next year. It probably won’t happen in the next century. But I believe it will happen eventually.

What can we do about it? Many things. We can devote more resources to fighting bacteria and viruses. We can try to combat climate change by modifying our behavior, our energy usage. We can have fewer children to decrease the stress we place on our world. All these things will help. And we mostly won’t do any of them until we have to, until it’s actually too late.

Then we’ll lament our leaders’ shortsightedness and curse our forebears for their selfishness and ignorance, but that won’t really be us. That will be our great-great-great-grandchildren, and we’ll be long buried, having passed our time in luxury relative to the pain they will know.


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Why Words Matter

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Words matter. We all know that. We even learn a nursery rhyme to try to convince ourselves that they don’t: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But of course that’s a lie. Words can hurt.

Words matter for lots of reasons. If we don’t define words the same way, it’s difficult to communicate with each other properly. For example, the word enlightened can mean that someone has achieved spiritual knowledge or insight – one has come to see the light. It can also mean that someone has achieved a well-informed outlook that is independent of spirituality.

Both definitions are correct. But if someone is discussing enlightenment in a spiritual sense while the listener is hearing about enlightenment in a secular way, the two people aren’t really communicating as well as they might assume.

People often get annoyed with me when I want to define terms. They’ll say, “That’s just semantics” when I try to narrow a definition to something we can all agree on, but semantics (the meaning of a word, phrase or sentence) is important when trying to understand exactly what it is that the person communicating is actually trying to say.

On the other hand, sometimes it helps when we don’t know precisely what someone means by the words spoken. For example, two nations (like the United States and North Korea) might find themselves in disagreement over how they both ought to behave. One might accuse the other of violating international law by testing missiles while the other might accuse the first of improperly implementing sanctions in an attempt to suppress its ability to reach its full potential.

The President threatens North Korea. The Dictator threatens the United States. No one knows exactly how far each leader will go. Both sides say they won’t back down, yet both sides, for now, avoid a military confrontation.

Depending on which side you’re on, you’re likely to see your leaders’ words as correct. North Koreans believe that they must negotiate from a position of strength while Americans think that if North Koreans ever get the ability to strike the US mainland with a missile, that would be a disaster.

Perhaps it would. We don’t know for certain that North Korea would attack us if it could, but we suspect that it might, so we do what we can to prevent that from being a possibility.

They fire off missiles. We send an armada to the Sea of Japan. Our actions bring us closer to the brink of war while our words leave a great deal of room for interpretation, which forces everyone to slow down and try to ascertain the meaning behind the threats. If either side knew exactly what the other meant, that side would have an enormous advantage.

So words matter. Sometimes it’s important that we understand what our neighbor is saying, and sometimes it’s important that we don’t.


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