Covington Catholic and America’s Propensity for Rushing to Judgment

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Chamtrumping [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Kicking off a discussion on the infamous incident involving a group of MAGA hat-wearing students from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School and Native American elder Nathan Phillips, Whoopi Goldberg posed a very simple question to her fellow panelists on The View this past Monday.

Why do we keep making the same mistake?

The answer is as simple as the question; in America, truth isn’t as valued as it ought to be.

Truth has always been at the foundation of everything that is good and just in American society. From the abolition of slavery to the passage of the country’s first environmental regulations, nearly every step we’ve taken towards being a healthier, more prosperous, more ethical, and more tolerant nation can be attributed to the recognition of certain truths that had previously eluded us — or, in some cases, were brushed aside in favor of falsehoods that provided convenient cover for America’s most notorious antagonists.

When truth prevails, so does justice. But when truth is obscured or its discovery delayed, justice becomes the proverbial needle in the haystack. And in the worst-case scenarios, that needle is swallowed whole long before anyone comes remotely close to pinpointing its whereabouts.

I learned that lesson when I was just a little younger than the Covington Catholic kids. It happened in 1996 during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. At a nighttime concert in Centennial Olympic Park, a backpack with three pipe bombs and masonry nails detonated under a bench. The blast killed one person and injured over a hundred more. After the bombing, it was reported that security guard Richard Jewell had stumbled upon the bomb, reported it to the proper authorities, and immediately began evacuating people from the area. He saved countless innocent lives that night and was subsequently hailed as a hero for his actions.

His romance with the press didn’t last long, though. After he was named as a suspect in the bombing, the whole nation turned against him, thanks in large part to media reports that cast the most sinister light imaginable on Jewell’s character, personality, and employment history. Even among polite company, the mere mention of his name was enough to inspire the most violent of utterances. I vividly recall the instantaneous rebuke I endured from a grumpy uncle when I dared to suggest that the proper course of action was to wait for the entire story before condemning Jewell’s legacy to the annals of domestic villainy. My high school history teacher was likewise unimpressed by my suggestion and made his disapproval quite clear in front of the entire class.

At that age, I didn’t have the necessary perspective to understand why everyone was so quick to condemn Richard Jewell. It is perhaps that same naiveté that led me to think that Americans would learn all the right lessons from the Jewell fiasco and refrain from repeating their mistake. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

About a decade later, a similar situation emerged in Durham, North Carolina when three Duke University lacrosse players were accused of rape. Feminists, civil rights activists, and countless left-wing media outlets waged a merciless smear campaign against the three men, but the players were eventually exonerated, and District Attorney Mike Nifong — the lead prosecutor in the case — was disbarred.

Three years after that, conservative activist James O’Keefe perpetrated a disgraceful hit job on employees of ACORN, a community-organizing group that advocated on behalf of low- and middle-income families in more than two dozen states. After O’Keefe released deceptively edited videos that appeared to show ACORN employees engaging in criminal behavior, right-wing media jumped on the story, and the group’s funding dried up almost immediately. A couple years later, they shut their doors for good.

The same year that ACORN shut down, Americans made yet another rush to judgment that proved to be embarrassingly off the mark. Like the Covington Catholic controversy, this story was brought to life by a misleading video clip featuring USDA official Shirley Sherrod. For those of you who don’t recall, Sherrod stepped down from her position with the Department of Agriculture in July of 2010 after she was raked over the coals for allegedly racist remarks she had made during a speech at an NAACP event in March of that same year. Those remarks were brought to the public’s attention on July 19 after conservative activist and blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a video excerpt from the speech to the Breitbart website. The backlash was swift and fierce, and on July 20, Sherrod tendered her resignation.

By the end of the next day, a whole lot of faces were covered in a whole lot of egg. As it turned out, Sherrod’s remarks had been taken wildly out of context. It was an embarrassing episode for many, such as Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, both of whom were forced to apologize to Sherrod.

The following year, the mainstream media and American public turned their sights back to the right when they went after former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for allegedly inspiring the attack on Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic Representative from Arizona. The attack left six people dead and fourteen others wounded, including Giffords herself.

Spoiler alert: the allegations against Palin were demonstrably false.

Her critics claimed that a map produced by her political action committee, the now-defunct SarahPAC, had inspired the shooter’s actions. The map used crosshairs to metaphorically target twenty different Democratic congresspersons whose seats had been up for grabs in the 2010 midterm elections. Citing the map as the basis for his argument, former New York Daily News columnist Michael Daly went so far as to declare that “Gifford’s blood is on Sarah Palin’s hands.”

The truth is that there is not, nor has there ever been, any evidence to suggest that either Sarah Palin or her crosshairs map had anything to do with what happened on that dreadful day. The shooter’s political views were described as “quite liberal” by one of his former classmates, while a high school friend claimed that the shooter “didn’t listen to political radio, he didn’t take sides, he wasn’t on the left, he wasn’t on the right.” It’s important to note as well that the shooter — who, by the way, was not a registered Republican — held a long-standing grudge against Giffords that predated not only the publication of Palin’s map, but also her entrance into national politics in the summer of 2008.

Why do we keep making the same mistake?

None of the aforementioned controversies are exactly like the others, but the similarities are difficult to miss. That’s especially true of the similarities between the Duke lacrosse case and the Covington Catholic story. The Duke case played out the way it did because it presented a plethora of juicy, bias-confirming subplots that aligned perfectly with far-left perceptions of what America is all about; racism, misogyny, and class warfare. The Covington Catholic incident obviously didn’t involve allegations of rape, but the actors — young, white males who attend an elite institution that caters to conservative families — were cut from the same privileged cloth that has always elicited revulsion within far-left circles.

But are the Covington students just as blameless as the three Duke students were? That depends on which students you’re talking about. Much of the coverage related to this incident has treated the Covington Catholic student body like a monolith. Mobs have little tolerance for nuance, so it’s not surprising that they would refrain from taking the time to distinguish the students who may have behaved poorly from those who either didn’t react to Phillips or were obviously confused by the whole affair.

As for me, I’d say that at least some of the students did not behave appropriately. Of course, these are high schoolers we’re talking about, and you can’t reasonably expect a bunch of teenagers to handle this kind of situation in an adult manner. But in my opinion, the “tomahawk chop” that a few of the students performed can hardly be called a totally innocent gesture. It may not have been deliberately insulting, but it was insulting nonetheless, and it certainly wouldn’t be unreasonable to order those students to apologize.

Additionally, one teenager who may or may not actually attend Covington Catholic was caught on video joking that “it’s not rape if you enjoy it.” However, a different student in the video immediately declares that the teen who cracked the joke “does not go to Covington.” A number of young girls were standing around when this happened, and Covington Catholic is an all-boys school, so it’s entirely possible that the wise guy in question was not with the Covington Catholic crowd. Regardless of whether that specific boy attends Covington or not, though, it goes without saying that he should face some sort of punishment for the wholly inappropriate joke.

Some commentators are asking why so many people have gone out of their way to defend the Covington kids or trivialize their bad behavior. Many have blamed it on white supremacy or racism. Others have pinned it on the allegedly manipulative tactics of the public relations firm that was hired by the parents of Nick Sandmann, the student who stared and smiled at Nathan Phillips. But maybe, just maybe, it’s because the original characterizations of the students’ actions simply do not reflect the truth about what happened. The Covington kids did not seek out and approach Nathan Phillips. There is no evidence that they chanted “build the wall” or hurled racial epithets in his direction. Nick Sandmann did not put himself in Phillips’ path as Phillips made his way up the Lincoln Memorial steps. Simply put, the original narrative was almost entirely false.

The truth matters. And in this case, the truth is that these students, including those that were just standing around and watching the scene unfold from a distance, were judged on false information and misleading exaggerations. There’s nothing just or fair about that, hence the mea culpas published in numerous media outlets across the political spectrum, such as The Atlantic and National Review. That said, the many different journalists, pundits, and commentators who apologized for prejudging the Covington students don’t all agree that those students are entirely innocent. However, they do seem to understand that if society insists on putting these teens on trial in the court of public opinion, the court’s final judgment should be based on the students’ actual sins, not the sins projected onto them by their critics.

Why do we keep making the same mistake?

Situations like the Covington controversy tend to occur when people who have invested a great deal of time and energy into promoting narratives of questionable veracity can no longer ignore the temptation to run with any story, no matter how dubious, that serves to reinforce those narratives. In the case of Sarah Palin and the Tucson shooter, some on the left enthusiastically embraced the allegation that Palin’s map had influenced the shooter because that allegation bolstered the broader narrative that right-wing rhetoric had become unacceptably provocative and violent in the wake of President Obama’s victory in 2008. Similarly, many on the right were downright jubilant when news of Shirley Sherrod’s remarks hit the airwaves because those remarks, when taken out of context, could have been used to support the broader narrative that Democratic hostility towards the interests of the white working class had started to materialize at an institutional level (which, not coincidentally, was a major theme in the 2016 presidential election).

And make no mistake about it; the public persecutions of Sarah Palin and Shirley Sherrod were indeed injustices in and of themselves. The same can be said about the Covington Catholic students who did not mock, insult, or engage with Mr. Phillips at all, but are nonetheless wrestling with the fallout from the incident, which has included hundreds of death threats directed at the student body and an untold number of students and parents being doxxed by online activists. Teenager Michael Hodge, who wasn’t even in Washington, D.C. on the day of the incident, was targeted by internet vigilantes after being mixed up with Nick Sandmann. Hodge and his family were inundated with violent threats, and his parents’ home address was posted online.

Why do we keep making the same mistake?

Though many Americans have a nasty habit of indulging their biases at the exact moments when they should be doing the opposite, quite a few of them do still intuitively recognize the injustice of punishing people for actions they didn’t commit. It doesn’t matter whether that punishment is issued by a courtroom judge or a mob of internet activists and social media users; either way, any punishment handed down to someone for an act they did not commit is an assault on the sanctity of truth. And an assault on the sanctity of truth is, by extension, an assault on the very notion of justice.

That’s why any and every pursuit of justice must start with the pursuit of the truth. In the cases of Covington Catholic, Richard Jewell, Shirley Sherrod, etc., America did the opposite, starting with a conclusion and working backwards from that conclusion. And when those conclusions proved incorrect, a great many of the people responsible for kicking off those witch hunts started scrambling for excuses to justify their behavior, demonstrating that they’re more concerned with being right than they are with doing the right thing — which, in those cases, would have been to simply admit their mistakes and publicly promise to be more careful in the future.

Father Time will often drag the truth into the spotlight eventually, but not without significant resistance from those who value narratives more than fairness, justice, and truth. Until that changes, America’s tendency to rush to judgment before knowing all the facts will continue to starve the nation of the reconciliation it so desperately needs. And yes, you absolutely can blame both sides — nay, make that every side, including the left, right, and center — for that particular problem.

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