Connie Schultz | We the People in a Land of “I’s“

By now, millions of people around the world have viewed the video showing a middle-aged guy taunting an older man with Parkinson’s disease at a protest in Columbus, Ohio, over health care reform.

That’s how it works in these days of YouTube and the World Wide Web. A healthy man picks on someone who’s disabled and, before you know it, students in Hong Kong are posting a video of ugly America on Facebook.

When Columbus Dispatch photographer Doral Chenoweth III first captured the encounter two weeks ago on video, no one knew the identities of the two men. Most Americans — even those who opposed the health care bill — didn’t need names to be alarmed by the graphic inhumanity unfolding before their eyes.

The younger man yelled that he would decide how much help the man with Parkinson’s would get for his medical care and then tossed dollar bills at him like a guy who’d just lost a bet at a bar.

Thanks to Dispatch reporter Catherine Candisky, we now know the man on the ground is 60-year-old Robert Letcher, a former nuclear engineer, and the man throwing the money is 40-year-old Chris Reichert. We also know that Reichert, after first denying that he was the guy in the video, has expressed regret.

“I snapped. I absolutely snapped, and I can’t explain it any other way,” Reichert told Candisky. “He’s got every right to do what he did, and some may say I did, too, but what I did was shameful. I haven’t slept since that day.”

Reichert said he gave a donation to a local Parkinson’s disease group, “and that starts the healing process.” For him maybe, but not for Letcher, who would like to hear from Reichert.

“Shouldn’t the aggrieved have a say in what might start a ‘healing process’?” Letcher said in an interview. “Or even what might start negotiations toward starting a healing process?”

At first, Letcher’s response made me wince. “Aw, c’mon,” I wanted to say. “The guy said he’s sorry. Aren’t we supposed to forgive?”

But the longer I spoke with Letcher, who talks slowly and must stand to catch his breath, the more clearly I saw that my discomfort came from a desire to leave behind something I’d rather forget and my mistaken belief that forgiveness was mine to grant.

Letcher further explained his feelings in an e-mail: “Mr. Reichert continues to act with the same lack of reservation in asserting what counts as ‘starting the healing process,’ as he did at the rally when he similarly asserted, ‘I’ll decide when to give you money.'” Letcher said he wants Reichert to join him in a public forum of some sort to champion civility.

I hope Reichert reaches out to Letcher and asks the questions that help to heal any relationship: “What can I do? How can I make this better?” I expect that Letcher would respond with a generous heart, in part because of his response after he read that online threats were making Reichert fear for his family’s safety.

Letcher was mortified.

“I don’t think Mr. Reichert should have to worry about the safety of his family,” Letcher said. “I’m as scared for the people he loves as the people I love. To the extent that he’s ashamed, he’s heading in the right direction. To the extent that he’s afraid, I think others are going in the wrong direction.”


Meanwhile, we the people might want to remember what it means to be Americans. These days, it’s not hard to find someone with an opinion about the direction of our country, and it doesn’t take many people to turn the conversation ugly. Change brings uncertainty. Uncertainty breeds fear. Most of us don’t want to admit that we’re afraid, so instead we act angry. Feels more powerful, more righteous.

Makes us deaf as rock salt, too. Ignore the shouting and listen to what people are actually saying and you’ll hear a lot of sentences that begin with the same word: “I.”

I want … I need … I believe …

Lot of “I’s” in the land of “we.”

Doesn’t sound very American.

Makes for lousy video, too.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books from Random House, “Life Happens” and “… and His Lovely Wife.” She is a featured contributor in a recently released book by Bloomsbury, “The Speech: Race and Barack Obama’s ‘A More Perfect Union.'”

Copyright 2010