by Dennis Saffran
Now that the media, the Left, and their usual conservative allies have failed to destroy young Nick Sandmann and the other Covington Catholic High School boys who attended the March for Life last weekend, they seem to be falling back on the old “wrong on both sides” standby.
Activist Nathan Phillips, the 64-year-old Native-American “elder,” may have lied when he claimed the students surrounded him, blocked his way, and yelled “Build the Wall”—and lied for good measure about being a Vietnam veteran. (In fact, he marched, cameras in tow, into their group while they were waiting for their bus, beating a drum within inches of Sandmann’s face.) But, as the story now goes, the boys—or “many” of them, or maybe just a “few” of them—were “mocking” or “disrespectful.” There were even some “tomahawk chops,” like at sports events, and maybe a few of what may have been “war whoops” or at least mimicry of his chants in a less than adulatory tone.
Even commentators who have supported the students, such as Robby Soave in his otherwise excellent reportage at Reason, have criticized them for this behavior.
Two points need to be made about all this.
The first and less important one is about whether anyone was actually mocking or acting disrespectfully toward Phillips. As usual in these situations, the evidence is ambiguous. From everything I’ve watched and read, the predominant reaction of the boys seemed to be confusion amidst all the racket, with some even thinking at first that Phillips was on their side against the Black Hebrew Israelites who had been harassing them with obscenities. (On some of the videos, a few students can be heard saying things like “What’s going on here?”) There appeared to be some Tomahawk chopping, but also some kids who just seemed to be dancing to the beat and trying to join in the chants.
Of course, the question of when singing and dancing along with a chanting Indian drummer shades into mimicking and then into “whooping,” like the question of when a smile becomes a frown, is a judgment call. In any event, a lot more of those boys either were doing nothing, watching the developing faceoff between Phillips and Sandmann, or were simply off to the side engaged in school rather than Native chanting.
Based on this, my guess is that some probably were “mocking” Phillips, as some liberals and NeverTrump conservatives charge, some were joining in with him, many were doing neither—and some, paradoxically perhaps, were doing a bit of both—at once annoyed and excited by his sudden and strange presence in their midst. In other words, they were ordinary Midwestern schoolboys imbibing a classic D.C. big demonstration scene, where encounters with fringe groups and eccentric characters, though likely novel to them, are simply part of the experience.
But, second, let’s say that this is all factually wrong, and that, in fact, everyone was indeed intentionally “mocking” Phillips. My reaction, given the context described above, is to shout “So what!”
The key factor here—as has been established contrary to the wanton and inaccurate initial media reports—is that Phillips came into the boys’ space (from which it was highly impracticable for them to leave), not vice versa, and quite literally got into their faces.
By contrast, if, as originally and falsely reported, the boys had come upon Phillips and his entourage chanting and praying and drumming and made fun of them, it would have been highly offensive and deserving of . . . well, still not of the national hatefest from a progressive establishment that now treats racial insensitivity, even by teenage boys, as worse than murder . . . but of serious condemnation and sanction by their parents, school, and pastoral authorities.
Racial insensitivity is not a “one-size-fits-all” crime, however, and context and proportion matter a great deal. In this context of intrusion and provocation a few tomahawk chops and “whoops” were perfectly appropriate, proportionate, and blameless.
(Obviously, there are limits, which is why I use the word “proportion” advisedly. Taunts about typhus infected blankets would not have been cool whatever the provocation.)
Let’s take an analogy. Last weekend, of course, was also the weekend of the Pink Pussyhat Anti-Semite’s March as well as the (10 times as large with 10 percent of the coverage) March for Life and, as we’ve all since come to learn, the Indigenous People’s March. Let us suppose a group of Pink Pussyhat Anti-Semites had come upon a group of nuns peacefully praying the rosary for unborn babies and began mocking and making fun of them. I should hope that liberals who rushed to condemn the Covington boys for just such alleged behavior, would also condemn such identically outrageous behavior as deserving of censure.
Of course, that is not analogous to what really happened at the Lincoln Memorial. The precise analogy to what actually transpired between the Phillips group and the Covington boys would be if the nuns in the hypothetical, rather than peacefully minding their business and praying, had—perhaps accompanied by some Gregorian-chanting monks—intruded into the middle of a group of teenage Pussyhatters waiting for their bus home and began loudly and aggressively praying and chanting, standing just inches from one of them. Could anyone really fault them for responding with a little light-hearted mockery proportionate to the provocation—if they’d, say, joined in the prayers or chants in a perhaps less than respectful manner, or maybe hummed a tribute to Sister Bertrille? I don’t think so, as much as I’m usually appalled by the ridicule to which leftists subject religious Christians. But the Covington Catholic boys can’t be faulted for a little disrespect of the Indian banging a drum in their faces either.
The bottom line is that while the truth generally lies somewhere in between what’s reported, sometimes it does not. This is one of those times. The Covington boys did absolutely nothing wrong. They responded to Phillips’s provocation with far more restraint than most adults would have done, and they should apologize for nothing.
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Dennis Saffran is a Queens, N.Y.-based appellate attorney and political and policy writer whose work has appeared in City Journal, The Federalist, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. Follow him on twitter @dennisjsaffran.
Photo “Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann Confrontation” by CBS News.