WASHINGTON — Words have a way of seeping into our vocabulary and, through overuse or distortion, soon begin to lose their meaning.
Who could have imagined that the word "beheading" would become commonplace, as though we were discussing a sport or a new product?
"Another American was beheaded yesterday," the newscaster explains. And then, "On a brighter note, a lost little kitten found her way home in a shocking way. We'll tell you about that ... right after this."
Who doesn't love a kitten story? But thus juxtaposed, the beheading, so atrocious and mind-boggling at first, now becomes nearly routine-ish and banal in the way that evil can become.
Online, our eye wanders to an array of sensational stories. Suddenly, our attention is averted from the horror of what-they-did to the 10 worst celebrity plastic surgeries, or Hollywood actresses who look terrible in a bikini, or suburban kangaroo street fight!
In the blink of an eye, we flit from the unflinching courage of a young man facing a most savage death to the trivial pursuits of a mindless voyeur. The brain absorbs and files these images, where? Are they different, or do we perceive them as more or less equal -- titillations not dissimilar to what we observe in any random R-rated movie or video game? Sex and violence are the horse and carriage of modern culture.
But it isn't just the media that cause these passive psychic blendings of the obscene and the absurd. Public servants -- officials, leaders and presidents -- do it, too. We're all fluent in the language foretold by George Orwell, where messages are designed to be vague or meaningless, the better to inoculate the people against thought or understanding.
But actions do speak louder than words. This is why so many found it jarring that President Barack Obama blandly condemned the beheading of American journalist James Foley just minutes before hopping into a golf cart. Message: Beheading bad; golf good. If your mind doesn't spin, then the spin must be working.
Reasonable people might protest: Do we really mind if the president can be worried sick about an American's murder and also play golf? Many a golfer will extol the virtues of the game as a way both to relax and to focus one's mind.
Yet reasonable people are also justified in wondering whether the president is really present in his job. Forget the optics. The relevant question is, where is his mind? Is he engaged? Does he care?
It is unfair to ascribe nefarious motives to the president, as many on the far right have done. Still, effective leadership requires that one not only speak the truth but speak it with conviction and authentic passions natural to events. Obama's remarkable dispassion, punctuated occasionally by a brilliant smile that seems attached to a timer, has the effect of no affect whatsoever.
What is really going on?
His demeanor conveys a lack of involvement that is both disconcerting and potentially dangerous. For whatever reasons, he is resistant to decision-making (destroy, not manage, that JV team the Islamic State), slow on the uptake when conditions are dire (Ebola), dismissive of his own lack of follow-through (the red line for Bashar al-Assad) and quick to blame others for his failings (he knew nothing about fill-in-the-blank until he read it in the papers).
While he brandishes incompetence, America's friends and foes stroke their chins. Is this guy for real?
We now have a case of Ebola in the U.S. despite the president's assurances that chances of an outbreak were "extremely low." More beheadings are promised and presumably will continue until we prevail in a battle that is more likely to last decades rather the two or three years that the administration has suggested. The worst things imaginable aren't just possible, they're already happening.
Not to be a party pooper for End Timers, who are doubtless giddy right now, but we can prevail over the pestilence of savages and the plague of Ebola. But government is only as good as we are, and we have work to do. Next month, vote because you can -- and vote only for those who understand what's really at stake. If Iran gets a nuke, if the Islamic State takes over more territory or is allowed to flourish here at home, it's everyone's necks on the line.
This is the grisly truth, the meaning of which should be clear.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.