David Ceasar: Resisting the scandalous urge

Controversies reported in the media are analogous to a rash. As much as we know scratching it is only going to make it worse – making it more inflamed and widespread – we can hardly control ourselves.

It feels so good, at least at first, to satiate the urge to scratch, but in the end, we know that no good will come from this. Most of the time, we do not even know what the rash is, let alone the effects of our probing it. Such is the case with sensitive situations that can instantaneously turn into protracted scandals. And such is the case on our campus the past month.

This University was in the national spotlight a couple weeks ago because of the Muslim poster incident, in which a liberal group satirized a conservative group’s beliefs and decision to hold Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week. In the past week, we garnered regional news coverage for a series of swastikas drawn in two residence halls and near the hospital.

At face value, both of these acts were offensive and deserved attention from the campus community. The highly charged situations spun out of control and the many actors responsible for the near hysteria could not help but continue scratching at the metaphorical rash.

Who was responsible for the escalation of the situations?

Well, most everyone is to blame. In the Islamic posters case: certainly the group of seven students who distributed the fliers, but also the recipients of the attack, the Young America’s Foundation. The pro-peace group, led by Adam Kokesh, poorly planned their parody of YAF by designing a poster that confused rather than informed. It took several days for most to understand that the words and images were satirical. Many got caught up in the excitement and jumped to the conclusion that the papers were outright hate speech – despite the absurd nature of what was said.

YAF activists at GW and nationally could have taken the high ground and not let the situation devolve, but instead two members went on Fox News’ “Hannity and Colmes” to duke it out with Kokesh. What a pitiful sight that was! Screaming, interrupting, mud-slinging. It was more on par with an elementary school food fight than a conversation between college-educated adults.

Albeit entertaining, the group embarrassed many at our University. A friend of mine – who first learned of the incident in a cab near Boston and, after his flight, again in a cab outside Reagan National Airport – said he felt humiliated to be associated with this school.

Much of the media did a good job handling this electric situation. Unfortunately, confusion arose over University President Steven Knapp’s response among The Washington Times’ staff and YAF higher-ups. The GW administration consistently said the students responsible would go before Student Judicial Services, but both the conservative newspaper and national organization weren’t able to or chose not to understand that simple fact.

Consequently, our University got more egg on its face as the Times – joined by many right-wing bloggers – besmirched our school’s leaders. One online poster called a GW employee “a bimbo leftist nutcase.”

The more recent challenge to our school’s mettle targeted not Muslims, but Jews. Though not (yet) attracting national attention, the recent spate of swastikas has also gotten many groups up in arms, including the Jewish community, the Anti-Defamation League and especially the media.

Local television reporters scoured campus earlier this week, interviewing students and officials. Satellite dishes extended out of news trucks blocked out part of the sky on F Street. Our campus – once again, and even worse than before – became a media circus.

In all fairness, The Hatchet is possibly to blame as well. This newspaper was the first to report on the initial, isolated swastika drawn on a dry-erase board in Mitchell Hall on Oct. 23. Perhaps a doodle on a marker board wasn’t worth publishing in our print and online editions, and, perhaps, the subsequent offenses were in response to our coverage of the act. Someone drawing such a hateful image might be sick enough to want the attention. [Editor’s note: David Ceasar is not involved with the news gathering operation at The Hatchet but writes opinions and serves on the editorial board.]

Professor Judith Vajda, who teaches a course on the psychology of crime and violence, said the unceasing recurrence of the swastikas could be spurred on by the media coverage. “There is the possibility that an individual would engage in a ‘copycat’ crime in order to vicariously obtain a psychological thrill from even more media attention. It is also possible that the same person is engaging in the behavior.”

She added, however, that “without knowing more about the individual(s),” it is impossible to make an informed evaluation of what is really going on. And that is a key common thread between the two incidents at GW – that, at the beginning of a controversy, no one really knows what’s at play.

Administrators, students, victims and the media can pick away at this rash, but, in reality, we’re only inflaming something we know little about.

The writer, a graduate student pursuing a master’s in political management, is The Hatchet’s senior editor.

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