Last Saturday, my teenage son and I went to participate in the 46th annual March for Life. On the way to the March we decided to get off the Metro a few stops early and take in some of the most iconic monuments on the Washington Mall. The Lincoln Memorial was our first stop.
Thirty six marble columns, representing the 36 states reunited after the civil war, guard the entry into a temple-like inner sanctum. Inside is a 175-ton marble statue of Abraham Lincoln. His left hand is clenched in a fist to symbolize his strength and determination to see the war through. His right hand is relaxed and open, symbolizing his compassionate reaching out to grieving Americans from both sides of the Civil War.
The meaning of his hands is further emphasized by his words. On the right hand wall is the Gettysburg Address. On Lincoln’s left is his Second Inaugural Address. He spoke these words on March 4, 1865, while the war was still ongoing and 41 days before his assassination.
Amid all the moving symbolism of the Memorial, these are the words that caused my voice to crack and my eyes to tear as I read them aloud. Even before the war was over in which 620,000 American fathers, sons and brothers killed each other, Lincoln’s strength and determination to make war was turning to an equal strength and determination to make peace.
It’s a brief speech that concludes, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
As we were approaching the Memorial, we heard a bullhorn and saw protesters off to our left. After our visit, we made our way through them toward the Viet Nam Wall. On the way we spotted a news crew interviewing some of their leaders. I can’t remember if one of them was Nathan Phillips.
I only remarked to my son that even though there were a half-million people only a few blocks away, this gathering of fewer than 100 would likely get more press coverage than the March for Life. Even then I couldn’t imagine what that would look like.
The first March for Life was organized in 1974 in observance of Roe v. Wade. It has been held every year since. Attendance can exceed 650,000. It has also earned the reputation among the Capitol Police with whom we spoke as the cleanest and most well-behaved March in Washington.
Not everybody is polite. One man, lugging around the biggest bullhorn I have ever seen and a ten-foot sign, wandered around in the crowd insulting the participants and generally making himself obnoxious. There was another like him farther down the route.
But considering that the crowd was roughly the size of Wyoming’s entire population, two bad eggs cannot dilute the overwhelming good nature of the participants.
Busloads of people come from all over. Many wear a distinctive hat or pullover. The 300 Lutherans wore neon-green beanies and carried pictures of people with life-affirming stories (eyesoflife.org).
Hundreds of Roman Catholic school groups can often be heard singing their distinctive school chants back and forth in friendly rivalries. That is why the article posted on Buzzfeed the following afternoon just didn’t ring true.
It linked a 60-second video clip from Twitter but told a story that didn’t match the video at all. Supposedly, a mob of Catholic teenagers surrounded a peaceful native American to taunt him. But the video showed only confused kids wondering why this man was beating a drum and staring down one of their friends.
Almost two hours of additional video shows a fuller story. A group of students were waiting for their bus when five men from the D.C. area began an hour-long barrage of racial, religious and sexual insults.
The student’s chaperones were keeping them together and reminding them to stay calm. Then an hour and twelve minutes into the video Nathan Phillips, a professional activist, led a group of protesters directly into their ranks. Imagine how you would react. After an hour of insults, a total stranger beating a drum walks out of his way to put his face within inches of yours.
What would you do? What expression would you have on your face? Nicholas Sandmann first tried a poker-face. Then he tried to break eye-contact.
Next, he tried a smile. It was the smile that condemned him. Someone decided that it was the wrong sort of smile. His crime was not anything that he said or did, but his appearance. There were two or three people with cameras. All of them knew the truth told by the video footage. But one of them edited the footage in a way calculated to misrepresent the event. Not only did that lie hurt Sandmann and his entire community, it was meant to. That is “malice aforethought.” America should know the name of this liar as well as we know the name, Covington. He or she should be brought to justice.
There are no laws against a forced smile while you are trying to make the best of an uncomfortable situation. But there are laws against publishing the picture and the identity of a minor with malicious intent.
It was not only the videographer who lied. So did an anonymous Twitter activist who posed as a California school teacher using the picture of a Brazilian blogger. He or she condemned Sandmann to 40,000 followers and amplified it through another 40 fake accounts. This was a professional hit.
Then the press got involved. Buzzfeed violated every standard of editorial diligence and decency by repeating a story in national press that had already been debunked. They knew what they were doing. So did the New York Times and their followers. Sandmann neither approached Phillips, nor touched him, or spoke to him. But he found himself in scores of newspapers and had his full name and picture vilified on 300 million TV screens and cell phones across America. That is not dispassionate reporting. That is participation in a mob.
America has jumped the shark. It’s time to take a deep breath and count to ten.
Sandmann is not a MAGA hat-wearer. He is not a Catholic. He is not a pro-lifer. He is not a European. He is a human being. He is a son. If Phillips had decided to pull his stunt a few hours earlier, it could very well have been my own son. That’s a sobering thought. Do we care? Do you care enough about a kid from Kentucky to watch the whole video and decide for yourself? Do you care enough to defend his good name when the mob might turn on you?
Do you care enough about the damage done to him to cancel newspaper subscriptions and turn off news-channels that have lied to you and defamed an unsuspecting kid? Do newspaper publishers and reporters care enough to verify facts before publishing whatever sells copy or advances their bias? Do celebrities and politicians care enough to apologize to the real person they have unjustly accused?
We need the strength and determination of Lincoln’s clinched fist to stand against this war on decency. And we need the compassion of his open hand to reach out to every fellow-citizen, not only the favored tribe du jour. Lincoln’s words still beckon: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
There is much work to be done.