I have put off doing this, since my observation of online disputes is that the only winners are people who stay out of them. But in the week since the horrific murders in Norway, three lines of criticism about my response to that event have been directed at me and, in some circles, keep being repeated often enough to become "true," even though they are not. I summarize them below and address them after the jump.
The lines of criticism -- first two from the right, the third from the left -- are:
1) That I am a hypocrite for responding to this event when I "made light of" earthquake tragedies in China. (I am not making this up.)
2) That I am a hypocrite for criticizing people who rushed to the conclusion that al Qaeda was to blame in Norway, when (allegedly) I rushed to criticize right-wingers after the Rep. Giffords shooting in Tucson.
3) That I am a hypocrite for criticizing a writer at another publication (for the al Qaeda in Norway assumption) and not criticizing one of my colleagues who made the same mistaken assumption early, Jeffrey Goldberg.
I disagree on all points and explain the reasons -- unfortunately, at some length --below.
1) Heartlessness about the Earthquake. This is preposterous, and I won't even link to the original source (which was then re-circulated by Instapundit and given right-wing life). What's the story here?
Around 2:30 on the afternoon of May 12, 2008, I was in a taxi on Beijing's Third Ring Road, headed back to our apartment. When I got there, I found that hundreds of people had poured out of that building, and the surrounding office towers, and had filled the streets, causing a big traffic tie-up. I took a picture and posted a brief item essentially saying: what is this all about?
Within an hour, news of the catastrophe far away in Sichuan began to spread -- as it would continue to do, to the country's mounting horror, over the next week. Until there was a clearer idea of what had happened, I thought it wiser to remove that initial light item -- which I quickly did, with this explanation:
>>I previously had posted a quick item about the minor disruption in Beijing this afternoon after the earthquake hundreds of miles away in Sichuan. In light of the emerging reports of possible large loss of life, including children, I thought it was better to remove that and simply express sympathies for these latest probably-rural, probably-poor victims of natural calamity.<<
This was in the middle of the night in the US and most people would never have seen the first item, but I thought it was better to explain a deletion. Then through that day, and the months ahead, I tried to describe in a long series of reports some of the consequences of this disaster for the people and communities involved. For instance, this was a pre-earthquake picture I had taken of schoolchildren in one of the mountainous areas that was affected. (To the best of my knowledge this school and these children were eventually OK.)
And this was a picture (not by me) of a sports day just 24 hours before the earthquake at a school that was completely destroyed, although many of its children were rescued by a teacher who kept looking for survivors in the rubble.
I won't go through the whole chronicle, but if you go back to one of the original posts and keep pushing the "next" button, you'll see the reports over the months that followed. Or you could read the chapter in my book Postcards from Tomorrow Square about how the villages, schools, and people were coping two months later when I traveled for a week through that zone. If any of the people advancing the "making light of tragedy" criticism has been within 500 miles of these villages, I will eat a copy of my book.
2) Tucson. The post-Oslo column I criticized (as did, independently, Steve Clemons and Ta-Nehisi Coates) was by Jennifer Rubin, on the Washington Post's site. I objected to these things about it:
- That it rushed to the assumption that al Qaeda had carried out the attacks;
- That it used that assumption to belabor preconceived points about American politics and to attack proponents of other views. For instance, "This is a sobering reminder for those who think it's too expensive to wage a war against jihadists." That link goes to an article about former Gov. Jon Huntsman saying that it was getting too expensive to stay in Afghanistan. And "Some irresponsible lawmakers on both sides of the aisle -- I will point the finger at Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and yet backed the Gang of Six scheme to cut $800 billion from defense -- would have us believe that enormous defense cuts would not affect our national security."
- That for nearly two days it stood on the Post's site, uncorrected, even though its central premise was suspected to be false at around the time it first went up and was provably false within the next hour or two.
Many of Rubin's supporters on conservative sites have recirculated the claim that I have no standing to offer this critique. A sample expression, via Instapundit: "One James Fallows -- he who made light of earthquakes in China and never offered a word of apology for his screwy defamation of conservatives in the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords" [and goes on to say that I cannot properly criticize Rubin.
Here is what I actually wrote on the day of the Tucson shooting. Its title was "The Cloudy Logic of 'Political' Shootings" and it discussed the difficulty of understanding why assassins did what they did. This was its conclusion, the supposed "screwy defamation of conservatives," in full:
>>So the train of logic is:
1) anything that can be called an "assassination" is inherently political;
2) very often the "politics" are obscure, personal, or reflecting mental disorders rather than "normal" political disagreements. But now a further step,
3) the political tone of an era can have some bearing on violent events. The Jonestown/Ryan and Fromme/Ford shootings had no detectable source in deeper political disagreements of that era. But the anti-JFK hate-rhetoric in Dallas before his visit was so intense that for decades people debated whether the city was somehow "responsible" for the killing. (Even given that Lee Harvey Oswald was an outlier in all ways.)
That's the further political ramification here. We don't know why the Tucson killer did what he did. If he is like Sirhan, we'll never "understand." But we know that it has been a time of extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery, including SarahPac's famous bulls-eye map of 20 Congressional targets to be removed -- including Rep. Giffords. It is legitimate to discuss whether there is a connection between that tone and actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be. At a minimum, it will be harder for anyone to talk -- on rallies, on cable TV, in ads -- about "eliminating" opponents, or to bring rifles to political meetings, or to say "don't retreat, reload."
Meanwhile condolences on this tragedy, and deepest hopes for the recovery of all who still have a chance.<<
I believed and believe it is "legitimate to discuss" whether there is a connection between general tone and specific events. And I think it is significant, and heartening, that even in the extremely polarized rhetoric of today's budget standoffs we hear many fewer uses of violent allusions or imagery than we did before the Giffords shooting. It is of course also legitimate to discuss whether there is a connection between extremist rhetoric, right-wing or Islamofascist, and the violence in Norway. If the column by Ms. Rubin had made similar points -- that we don't know what happened, that tracing motives is often obscure, but that it's legitimate to discuss possible connections -- obviously I would have supported rather than objected to her analysis. She didn't say those things. Read them both and compare.