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Thursday, February 10, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Donna Britt

Sharing The Silent Truths

Washington Post Writers Group

WASHINGTON - Sitting in the stands at the Washington Bullets game on Sunday, I witnessed two massacres.

In the more publicized slaughter, the Golden State Warriors trounced the Bullets 106-84 before thousands.

Few saw the other, more entertaining wipeout. In it, professional sports pest Robin Ficker - a lawyer locally famous for using his season-ticket seats behind the Bullets' opposing bench to heckle the enemy - took on the Warriors' Chris Webber.

Ficker's game plan was to flail rookie Webber with the player's worst career moment: when last April, the then-University of Michigan hoopster mistakenly signaled an illegal timeout that ensured Michigan's loss of the championship.

Even on TV, it was excruciating, watching a gifted 20-year-old's agony over costing his team the ultimate prize.

Ficker spent two hours hammering at Webber, bending over and yelling through a bullhorn into his inches-away ear, "Hey, hold it - Webber wants a timeout!"

Over the months, I've seen players curse or obscenely gesture at Ficker. Not Webber.

First, the player blew kisses at Ficker. Then he helped pummel the Bullets. Finally, Webber turned, grinning, to the still-screaming Ficker - and gave him a "timeout" hand signal. Didn't say a word.

Crowd members loved it.

As a writer, I know words' inadequacy. I understand the frustration of giving birth to an idea, watching it gain clarity and vividness, and then trying, vainly, to write it.

At such times words seem too small, too limiting, too . . . human to do the job. I've learned that some truths, born in silence, choose largely to remain there.

Today, silence and its truths fascinate me. Because these days we are drowning in words.

"Racism." "Anti-Semitism." "Dirty old pope." "Wetback." "Ethnic cleansing." "Bloodsucker." "Genocide."

And the more we speak, the more I wonder if, truly, we are hearing each other.

Everybody has his or her push-button words. For each group, there are phrases that best characterize its suffering, confirm its worse suspicions. Each of us knows an epithet that encapsulates centuries of hurt.

When the words of others push our buttons - accidentally or with cruel intent - there can be hell to pay.

Khalid Abdul Muhammad, a little-known spokesman for the Nation of Islam, in November gleefully said all manner of nasty things about Jews, Catholics, feminists, black scholars and leaders and others. A flood of outraged words later - including a unanimous repudiation by the U.S. Senate - Muhammad was fired by his boss, Minister Louis Farrakhan, whose announcement of the action was couched in words that only angered some further.

At the same time, the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus pointed out that one of the lawmakers who reprimanded Muhammad, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), has survived a history of ugly remarks about minorities - most recently a "joke" about prominent African leaders - without suffering official reprimand.

These men's crimes are not the same, but are linked by the wielding of words that jab people's tenderest places. I don't know these men any more than I know anything about Webber or Ficker, other than their public lives. I have no clue why Muhammad and Hollings spoke the hurtful words they did.

I'm interested in the clamor surrounding their words. In what it stirred up, for so many, from the silence.

It is in our individual silences that our visceral responses are shaped. And despite speculation about "longtime rifts," it is in the silence that black folks and Jews - and everyone else - are most similar.

In the silence from which many Jews operate is a knowledge of the death and devaluation that hateful words can galvanize. Always, I'm told, there's the echo: "Six million."

Flowing wordlessly through the consciousness of many black people is the awareness of slavery, Jim Crow, ongoing racism - and the resulting self-hatred that leaves children bleeding on city streets.

In our deepest silence - where we go in prayer and meditation, where our best selves reside - we are even more the same.

And it is into that silence that we must go to begin to heal America's endless war of words. To explore our own culpability; to acknowledge that in a prejudiced world, people will make mistakes.

It is there that some Jews must go to understand the chords Minister Farrakhan's unedited words strike in many blacks who harbor no anti-Semitism. It is there that African Americans who can't fathom some Jews' obsession with the Nation of Islam, as presented by the media, may find an answer.

It's where everyone - even a U.S. senator - must venture to make sense of other people's buttons.

In the silence, we may remember not to be so deafened by the din that we forget what Chris Webber, at 20, demonstrated so well: Sometimes, you have to forget the words. The thing is to win.

In the silence, we may even learn to do it together.

(Copyright, 1994, Washington Post Writers Group)

Donna Britt's column appears Thursday on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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