The Washington Post

The indignation cycle

There are so many wrong things to say in response to hideous violence. And in the hours since the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that killed ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, we’ve heard most of them.

I thought the news cycle was fast, but the indignation cycle is faster. These days, you hear the thunder hours before you see the lightning. Before most people in the world had seen what is by all accounts a Deeply Offensive Movie About Islam, there were rioters in the streets who pointed to the movie as the reason for the action. Before the tragic news from Libya had cooled in anyone’s inbox, the Romney campaign was denouncing the Obama administration’s response for sympathizing with terrorists.

I’m continually astounded by the lengths to which people go to take and give offense. They go trawling through the ugly bowels of the Internet to unearth videos that deserve no one’s attention and try to use them to excuse the inexcusable. The Deeply Offensive Movie of the Prophet Muhammad in question is a year old. It was blessedly obscure until a week ago, when a trailer appeared in Arabic. Now everyone’s talking about it, as though it were in some way responsible for violence. It’s not. And it’s being ballyhooed by Terry Jones, the poster boy for this kind of inflammatory nonsense. Now YouTube in Afghanistan is being shut down, lest anyone see it. That’s simply wrong.

But Taking Unnecessary Offense also comes in the milder but still galling form of seizing events to make offended political postures before you even quite know what happened.

The Romney campaign’s knee-jerk response to last night’s events was to insert its foot into its mouth. Yesterday evening it released a statement that it was “disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

Romney clarified this morning in Jacksonville, Fla., that what he was denouncing were the Cairo embassy's statements from earlier Tuesday that condemned “efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims” (that video, again), although an administration official told ABC News that these statements did not reflect the views of the government and had not been cleared by Washington. The actual remarks from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Obama have established fairly clear lines on the subject, with Clinton calling the attackers a “savage band” and noting that “there is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.” Now Romney is reduced to saying things like: “The statement that came from the administration — and the embassy is the administration — the statement that came from the administration was a statement which is akin to apology,” as reported by the Deseret News.

Indignation travels fast, these days. Noise outpaces light every time.

There are some things that you can say but shouldn’t. You can produce at great cost and expense a video vilifying a major religious figure. You can, but you shouldn’t. You can blame that video for violent acts. You can, but you shouldn’t. You can respond to horrible news by denouncing the president. You can, but you shouldn’t.

There are so many wrong things to say. And we’ve heard most of them.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".


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