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  • Mark Lavie

What about the what-aboutism?

My latest article appears here in today's Jerusalem Post:

It erupts every time someone posts something that criticizes the riots and rioters who wrecked parts of the US Capitol last week.

The response is immediate: Comments with links to reports about unrest in the ‘60s or rioting during the racially-inspired protests last summer. And the question, “Why don’t you people (especially Joe Biden) condemn those riots?”

It doesn’t matter whether the charge is true or false. Well, yes, it does, since truth always matters. It’s false.

But much more important are these basic questions: What difference does it make whether someone condemned some other incident of violence? And why don’t the apologists condemn the storming of the Capitol?

Do they really think that there is a moral equivalence between actions and responses (riots

and condemnation), or between destroying random property and attacking the seat and symbol of the federal government?

They insist that anyone who doesn’t condemn one kind of violence has no right to condemn another kind. And all the while, they’re doing exactly that—condemning what they perceive as leftist violence last summer (a wild oversimplification of the angry response to two centuries of racism) and the premeditated, planned, and carefully executed plan to storm the Capitol and disrupt or stop the process of affirming the results of an election for President.

There are two terms for this dialogue-destructive behavior: “What-aboutism” and “deflection.”

What-aboutism is straightforward. You post something critical of the actions of one side, and that side responds with, “But what about the misdeeds on your side?”

The obvious logical fallacy is that even if both sides have done things that are wrong, criticizing one does not justify the other. Even if Black Lives Matter led riots in the summer, that doesn’t justify the assault on the Capitol last month. And vice versa, or course.

Deflection is more sophisticated and more cynical. By posting outlandish and false charges against the critics, deflection is aimed at skewing the argument away from the original subject and onto another one. Like, “Joe Biden didn’t condemn the Black Lives Matter violence.” “Yes, he did.” ”No, he didn’t.” And on and on until the original subject is buried in an avalanche of irrelevance.

I posted the following (rather mild) observation as the Washington assault was still going on:

“Just a few thoughts...

“How is it possible that the Capitol wasn't ringed three deep with riot police?

“Can you imagine the death toll if blacks stormed the Capitol?

“And finally... This isn't the end. With any luck it's the middle.”

That unleashed a torrent of heated comments, complete with links to graphic photos and conspiracy theories from dubious sources, all aimed at showing how the “left” is the real bad guy here.

Exasperated, at one point I responded: “Your level of what-aboutism and deflection has reached unprecedented heights. I bow my head before you in reverence.”

Missing from all those comments was even a hint of disagreement or discomfort with the storming of the Capitol by hundreds of rioters who did, indeed, succeed in forcing their way into the building and disrupting the workings of the American legislature.

This is something that did not happen during the Vietnam War, during World War II, not even during the Civil War. The only parallel in American history is the British burning the Capitol in the War of 1812.

(When I posted that as a comment, I got a well-reasoned, thoughtful response from the original author: “That’s absurd.” That’s typical of anti-social media.)

Here is the most troubling aspect: What-aboutism and deflection have the aim of countering or covering up the crimes of “your” side by attributing the same level of misbehavior to “my” side—with no hint of regret or remorse, no recognition of the danger of this extent of polarization that amounts to de-legitimization, even hate, of the other side.

So let’s make our stand clear. Violence is wrong, whatever the motive, whatever the background, whatever the history. But more than the need to condemn it, we must look for ways to prevent it. That doesn’t mean only reinforcing the guard around public buildings. It means addressing grievances and finding solutions, finding ways to restore the trust the people once had in their institutions—and in each other.

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Correspondent MARK LAVIE has covered the Middle East for major news outlets since 1972. His second book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?” looks back at his career and comes to a surprising conclusion.

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