Over the last 72 hours, I’ve been asking myself a simple question: What would happen if a group of Black Israelites had spent an hour taunting my son’s high-school football team? How would they have reacted if a Native American elder had walked into their midst – apparently not saying anything intelligible to them, but rather banging a drum and chanting inches from one kid’s face. Would they have thought that was an effort at “peacemaking,” or just more taunting? What would they have said if some of the people walking with that elder had yelled insults at them?
I ask those questions, but I’m pretty sure I know the answer. The boys wouldn’t have reacted all that differently from the kids at Covington Catholic. They would have sung different songs, they would have chanted different chants, and maybe one or two of the kids would have lofted an obscene gesture in the direction of the Black Israelites. In other words, they would have been kids, and barring some sort of overt criminal act, the blame for any tension that followed should rest with the adults who behaved so aggressively and strangely (and, let’s face it, walking through a group of boys chanting and banging a drum is not exactly normal behavior). If a kid responds poorly to a challenging situation, you reprimand him. You teach him.
But this is America in 2019, and it’s full of rage and hate. And parents of young men know that hostile people would instead want to destroy your child’s life. They would want to destroy your own livelihood. They would wish violence on him and you. They would try to destroy your school, and they would mock your faith. And then, even when their rage is proven to be unfounded, they would spend days hunting through your background and your school’s history to try to find some reason to hate you anyway.
Earlier today, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted this:
I haven’t seen the broad conservative coalition as fired up about a story since Kavanaugh. Pretty interesting.
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) January 22, 2019
He’s exactly right. So long as the Covington Catholic story remains in the news – so long as activists continue to comb through internet archives and social media to try to damn the school, its students, and parents to social-justice hell – this story is Brett Kavanaugh, the sequel. And here’s why, as summed up in a tweet from Bethany Mandel:
Between the Kavanaugh debacle and now what happened with these MAGA boys, there’s a lot of nervous boy moms and dads out there. If they can and will seek to destroy these guys, they’ll come after yours.
— Bethany S. Mandel (@bethanyshondark) January 21, 2019
In the Kavanaugh case, conservative men and women looked at decades-old, uncorroborated allegations, the unquestioning acceptance of those claims, and the furious effort to destroy a man’s reputation and career – even by passing along the wildest and most implausible claims – and thought, “That could be me” or “that could be my husband.”
Now, these same people look at the reaction to the Covington Catholic kids and think, “That could be my son.”
You can hold that fear in your heart without excusing or condoning sexual assault in any way. You can hold that fear in your heart without excusing or condoning racism or even thoughtless taunts. Because you’ll know that for all too many people, the truth doesn’t really matter. You’re a symbol, not a person. When angry people cook that social-justice omelet, they break eggs not with regret but with angry glee.
Yes, I know the “whatabouts.” I know the habit of some people on the right to immediately hunt through the pasts of even dead black men and boys to find some evidence they were a bad person, even if those facts aren’t relevant to the case at hand. I’ve seen the supposedly incriminating pictures of young black men passed around social media as if they’re evidence when they’re not. I know about cases like the Central Park Five.
I also know that practice is horrible. I know that it’s evil. And I understand why black parents worry that their kid could be next – and live in fear of something far more deadly than social media shame campaigns or lost jobs.
But the existence of that fear – and the reality of those cases – does not justify in any way a decision to intentionally inflict fear and pain on your political enemies. And when you are found to be wrong, when snap judgments go awry, the proper response is to apologize (as some of my colleagues have done). We’re human. We make mistakes. The proper response is not to double down in digging for dirt, hoping and praying that you’ll find some reason to justify your initial rage. When activists and partisans do that, they send a clear message to their opponents: They will destroy you if they can.
That’s the message that sent a shudder up the spine of husbands and wives during the Kavanaugh hearings. That’s the message that sends a shudder up the spine of moms and dads as we watch men and women try to ruin the Covington Catholic kids. This isn’t just a media scandal. When we see the hate, some of us see our sons, and we know that in America today, their futures, their reputations, and – given the prevalence of death threats – perhaps even their very lives are in the hands of an angry mob.
It’s that concern for our kids that makes Chris Hayes correct. After initial missteps, the Right is largely united. There exists out there a level of hate – and an eagerness to believe the worst – that not one of us should tolerate, and that not one of us should visit upon our foes.