We, like everyone else, have only the videos to go on in determining what went down on the National Mall last week when Catholic high school students from Kentucky encountered a group of Native Americans. And for the most part, they tell a similar story: A bunch of teen-age boys, many in “Make America Great Again” hats, made fools of themselves throughout the day in various ways, from calling girls “sluts” to announcing rape isn’t rape “if you enjoy it.” And then, of course there was the encounter between Omaha elder Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann, the Covington Catholic High School student whose facial expression during the encounter has become a political Rorschach test.
Much meaning has been attached to young Mr. Sandmann’s smirk and Mr. Phillips’ unbreaking gaze, with different conclusions reached about who instigated whom depending upon the viewer’s bent and how many other videos they’ve watched. One shows a handful of Hebrew Israelites, a confrontational group whose black nationalist beliefs have put them under scrutiny by the Southern Poverty Law Center, taunting dozens of the boys, who seem not a bit cowed (especially not the shirtless one leading a school chant) before Mr. Phillips appears. Some have used that incident to excuse the students’ behavior, claiming it put them on the defense. We’re not convinced. These boys — and make no mistake, they are still children — are hardly innocent. Their own school and Catholic diocese condemned the boys’ actions and offered their “deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips” and “those who support the pro-life movement,” which is what the teens were supposed to be in Washington to promote. (Although we we wonder where the adult chaperones were when all this bad behavior was occurring.)
Perhaps the only certain thing in this mess is that the massive attention the media has given this encounter — without full context — is not helping. It has transformed the people involved into avatars of the opposing sides in our national political combat. They’re not. They are individual, flawed human beings. They had a confusing and tense interaction that they themselves probably do not fully understand. Conflict and misunderstanding can occur when you step into the public square. This is an extreme example, but it’s not unprecedented.
Why, then, has it become a national obsession? There were the MAGA hats, which are as divisive a symbol as you’ll find in contemporary politics, and then there was the video, and that’s the tinder of social media fire. It spread quickly in the shallow way that the internet makes all too easy, and the mainstream media, panicked at being left out of the conversation, started chasing the social media tail. There is no end in sight.
This is, of course, not the first time something like this has happened. Far from it. Polarizing social media-fueled outrages are becoming a staple of American life. All we can really hope for are leaders who will try to use incidents like these to bring us together, to foster understanding.
President Barack Obama used to try to do that — for example, in 2009 after he ignited an uproar by saying the Cambridge, Mass., police had acted “stupidly” when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested after someone called to report him breaking into what turned out to be his own home. Mr. Obama invited Mr. Gates and the policeman, Sgt. James Crowley, to the White House for a beer, and while it didn't spark a nationwide wave of racial reconciliation, it did at least bring those two men to some kind of understanding. (“When he’s not arresting you, Sergeant Crowley is a really likable guy,” Mr. Gates remarked afterward.)
Mr. Obama later said he regretted his role in inflaming the Gates controversy. But President Donald Trump? Inflaming is his goal. He has tweeted twice about the controversy, using the occasion to demonize the “fake news” media and to laud the Covington students as blameless angels.
Both Messrs. Phillips and Sandmann have said they want to meet and talk. They certainly should. But please, not on TV — more media is not the answer here — and not with President Trump; bridging political divides is not, to put it mildly, his forte. What we need here is a leader who sees the racial divide in this country as a problem to be solved, not an opportunity to be exploited.