Mollie Tibbetts was an all-American college student from a small town in Iowa, America’s heartland. While jogging, she was accosted by a Mexican farmworker, an illegal alien. He killed her, then hid her body in a cornfield, to which he led the police on August 21.
A few days later, several men in Chemnitz, Saxony, got into a scuffle. One of them, Daniel H., was stabbed to death. Two suspects were apprehended, one Syrian, the other Iraqi.
Both acts were heinous crimes. But neither offers any larger statistical insight — unless it is that men are far more likely to commit crimes than women. In the US, for example, migrants actually perpetrate fewer crimes on average than native-born Americans do.
But none of that matters. The tragedy of our time is that certain events tap into pre-existing narratives that, stripped of context and proportion, propagate via social media through specific subcultures and mutate into mantras of hate. The bereavements of individuals, rather than uniting communities in grief, separate entire societies.
Thus Mollie Tibbetts became fodder for Donald Trump, who as a presidential candidate had said that Mexicans are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” Now, on Twitter, he felt vindicated. Fox News, a right-wing propaganda network posing as TV news, covered the murder wall-to-wall, while most other stations focussed on Trump’s legal woes.
In Chemnitz, mobs gathered to attack anybody who looked foreign. Neo-Nazis, who had clearly been waiting for this opportunity, imported gangs of angry men who stared down the police and gave the Hitler salute.
As usual, prominent liberals grew oddly tongue-tied. In the US, Elizabeth Warren, a senator mentioned as a Democratic hope for president, made viewers squirm as she tried on CNN to change the subject from Tibbetts and migrants. Her awkwardness only stoked the frenzy.
It is often said that “the first casualty of war is truth.” But we don’t even need war anymore. In the past, although there have always been subcultures peddling conspiracy theories, media technology and culture in the West allowed neutral arbiters – most iconically Walter Cronkite at CBS – to curate society’s collective narratives. Today’s media landscape is different. It kills nuance, balance and subtlety. And it feeds paranoia, victimization and vengeance. It is as though Twitter and Facebook gave us scalpels with which we voluntarily decorticate our brains, leaving only the amygdalas.
What is a decent person to do? One option is to withdraw for the sake of sanity. Another is to stay in the struggle, for its own sake. That’s what Sandi Tibbetts Murphy did, a cousin of Mollie’s. “You do not get to usurp Mollie and her legacy for your racist, false narrative now that she is no longer with us,” she posted on Facebook. “We hereby reclaim our Mollie.”
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