I read today about a woman in Florida who was arrested for sending death threats to the parent of a child killed in the Sandy Hook shootings four years ago. Even more shocking to me than the threats is the fact that the woman believes the shootings were a hoax, and that there is a group of people out there somewhere who don’t believe the shootings happened at all. They believe the whole thing was made up—that in fact the victims had never existed—and that the U.S. government staged the event to take away our guns and our liberty.
There have been conspiracy theories floated for most, if not all, of the major events and news stories in recent history (mostly in the last sixty years or so, since radio, television, and the internet were invented), but none, save one, have struck me like this one. It could be because this involves children and the accusations that the grief of their parents is an act. The other conspiracy theory that enrages me to this extent is the claim that the Holocaust never happened. Attempting to wipe out the memories, the very existence, of people—especially children—seems to me to be the worst kind of offense
. It diminishes our collective humanity. It turns the conspiracy theorists into monsters, where before I would have described them simply as small, mean individuals.
These are people who do more than just fail to vet their sources—they actively create false sources of information designed to draw others in. How, I’ve been wondering, can we counteract this kind of ugliness? This is a relatively new form of terrorism. I say this because it IS terrorism. These people are targeting grieving family members. Some are directly threatening parents of the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings. This is unconscionable behavior founded in paranoia about the government. About any kind of order and perceived control. Unchecked, this kind of thinking will grow like a cancer. More and more people will be drawn in. More and more people will feed on the sense of power and importance of the self-professed leaders of these groups.
As people who educate, and who do their best to create spaces where people are encouraged to learn and grow, where do we draw the line between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable? Do we have a responsibility to join with the victims of tragedies and/or their families to give them a voice? Do we have a responsibility to the conspiracy theorists? Where does the intersection between education and social responsibility occur, and is it our job to curate that space? And do we/how do we address the point at which freedom of speech and the pursuit of happiness for some becomes an encroachment on the freedoms and happiness of others?