Like many people who spend too much time on Twitter, I watched with indignation Saturday morning as stories began appearing about a confrontation near the Lincoln Memorial between students from Covington Catholic High School and American Indians from the Indigenous Peoples March. The story felt personal to me; I live a few miles from the high school, and my son attends a nearby all-boys Catholic high school. I texted him right away, ready with a lesson on what the students had done wrong.
“They were menacing a man much older than them,” I told him, “and chanting ‘Build the wall!’ And this smirking kid blocked his path and wouldn’t let him leave.” The short video, the subject of at least two-thirds of my Twitter feed on Saturday, made me cringe, and the smirking kid in particular got to me: His smugness, radiating from under that red MAGA hat, was everything I wanted my teenagers not to be.
“Where were they chanting about building the wall?” my son asked. His friends had begun weighing in, and their take was decidedly more sympathetic than mine. He wasn’t sure what to think, as he was hearing starkly different accounts from people he trusted. I doubled down, quoting from the profile of Nathan Phillips that The Washington Post had quickly published online, in which he said he’d been trying to defuse a tense situation. I was all-in on the outrage. How could the students parade around in those hats, harassing a man old enough to be their grandfather—a Vietnam veteran, no less?
By Sunday morning, more videos had surfaced, and I started looking for the clip that showed them chanting support for the wall. I couldn’t find it, but I did find a confrontation more complicated than I’d first believed. I saw a few people yelling terrible insults at the students before Phillips approached, which cast an ugly pall over the scene. I saw Phillips approach the students; I had believed him when he said he’d intended his drumming to defuse the tension, but I also wondered how a group of high-school students could have gleaned that when he didn’t articulate it in a language they might understand.
I hated the MAGA hats some of the kids were wearing, their listless tomahawk chops, the way some of their chanting mocked Phillips’s. But I also saw someone with Phillips yelling at a few of the kids that his people had been here first, that Europeans had stolen their land. While I wouldn’t disagree, the scene was at odds with the reports that Phillips and those with him were attempting to calm a tense situation.
As I watched the longer videos, I began to see the smirking kid in a different light. It seemed to me that a wave of emotions rolled over his face as Phillips approached him: confusion, fear, resolve. He finally, I thought, settled on an expression designed to mimic respect while signaling to his friends that he had this under control. Observing it, I wondered what different reaction I could have reasonably hoped a high-school junior to have in such an unfamiliar and bewildering situation. I came up empty.
Let’s assume the worst, and agree that the boy was being disrespectful. That still would not justify the death threats he’s been receiving. It would not justify the harassment of the other Covington Catholic student who wasn’t even in Washington, D.C., but who was falsely identified as the smirker by some social-media users. Online vigilantes unearthed his parents’ address and peppered his family with threats all weekend long, even as they were trying to celebrate a family wedding, accusing them of raising a racist and promising to harm their family business.
The story is a Rorschach test—tell me how you first reacted, and I can probably tell where you live, who you voted for in 2016, and your general take on a list of other issues—but it shouldn’t be. Take away the video and tell me why millions of people care so much about an obnoxious group of high-school students protesting legalized abortion and a small circle of American Indians protesting centuries of mistreatment who were briefly locked in a tense standoff. Take away Twitter and Facebook and explain why total strangers care so much about people they don’t know in a confrontation they didn’t witness. Why are we all so primed for outrage, and what if the thousands of words and countless hours spent on this had been directed toward something consequential?
If the Covington Catholic incident was a test, it’s one I failed—along with most others. Will we learn from it, or will we continue to roam social media, looking for the next outrage fix? Next time a story like this surfaces, I’ll try to sit it out until more facts have emerged. I’ll remind myself that the truth is sometimes unknowable, and I’ll stick to discussing the news with people I know in real life, instead of with strangers whom I’ve never met. I’ll get my news from legitimate journalists instead of from an online mob for whom Saturday-morning indignation is just another form of entertainment. And above all, I’ll try to take the advice I give my kids daily: Put the phone down and go do something productive.