It's taken me a full five days to write this piece in the wake of the shootings at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. Five days to watch the truth of the events slowly emerge from the detritus of the rushes to judgment by the media and its "experts." Within an hour of the event, I knew nothing of substance would underpin a hurried column on the who, what, and why of the mass shooting. The "when" was pretty well taken care of; the where, almost so -- though there were locale outliers for a while. There simply was nothing, and no one, to trust for facts.
In the beginning, we were led to believe there were three shooters with assault rifles who had stormed through the gates of the Navy Yard and rampaged about the complex. Lockdowns were ordered throughout the community, even the staid old Senate -- many blocks from the shootings -- closed its doors. The death toll rose from four, to eight, to eleven, then to twelve. The number of shooters declined...o nly two were suspected. Then just one, who still had an assault rifle -- named in some accounts as an AR-15. He had been seen shooting from a balcony overlooking the cafeteria atrium (not true). Eventually, he was killed in a shootout, and we found out he was a Navy veteran working for an IT contractor.
The facts kept coming in, overlaying the misstatements and flat-out lies that had been generated only hours before. Security clearance questions arose; a history of mental illness popped up; the Department of Veterans Affairs was implicated for failure to see the carnage to come, as was the Department of the Navy for failing to pass along important police information about the shooter. The Virginia gun dealer took a few hits before the truth came out that nothing untoward or illegal had transpired when the shooter purchased not an assault rifle but a shotgun. Journalism has become a race to get the "facts" first, cleaned up by corrections later. Stories everywhere, but very little to be trusted. Who do you trust?
Why have we become so chary with our trust, and where can we look to spot the root cause?
A story on the persistence of joblessness by financial reporter Jim Tankersley in Friday's Washington Post, mentioned a study by economists at the University of Texas, Austin, and the University of California, Berkeley. The study's initial focus was on the "rising persistence of U.S. unemployment -- an analysis of why it is taking so long for America's job seekers to get back to work in the wake of the recent recession.
One of the study's findings was that Americans have lost trust amongst ourselves:
"Social trust has declined in America, meaning people are less likely to say they trust each other and society and more likely to say it's all right to claim government benefits, even if they don't qualify for them. That change of view appears to be hurting the job market. That's right: The research shows that unemployment is higher because people trust one another less. 'Social networks are a common way people find jobs, and the social isolation and distrust we observe are likely associated with a decline in these traditional networks,' said the [report's] authors."
This is not the revelation it appears to be. Americans have been sliding down the slippery slope of distrust for decades. For my generation, the Boomers, our slide began with Vietnam and, as the Pentagon Papers showed us, the trumped up reasons we were in Southeast Asia to begin with. There are more than 58,000 combat-silenced testimonials to political duplicity engraved in the shining black walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Farther down the slope we slid by Watergate, the Nixon tapes, and Tricky Dick's ignominious departure from the White House. Trust was pretty hard to come by in those days.
Trust's downward trajectory accelerated through the casualty-laden clouds of 9/11. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security was not, in my opinion, a guarantor of more security; rather, it encouraged a new level of distrust not nearly so much of elements from outside our country as from internal bogeymen: ourselves. No longer could be we be trusted with containers of liquids or powders. Our shoes were suspect, our wallets and our phones were screened, our bodies -- even those of toddlers and grandmothers in wheelchair -- were patted down, our clothes penetrated by explicitly revealing beams. Cameras mounted on light poles and attached to buildings popped up all over our cities, making a solitude-seeking walk in the park an exercise for police surveillance. Almost overnight, we became a nation of suspects.
The dog-and-pony show of the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq did little to assuage Americans of their deepening distrust of the nation's political leadership and the media that followed unerringly along into the desert, only to find a dry well of claims into which more American lives would be poured. Who do you trust?
This century's political campaigns, steroid-pumped versions of the worst partisan mud-slinging of the early nineteenth century, have shown us a field of candidates willing to spend nearly a billion dollars in advertising lies to win the highest office in the land. Even today, as the House of Representatives passed a bill that would defund Obamacare in a sordid and stupid version of political blackmail, the public trust in government by the people, for the people, is down for the count.
None of the preceding examples are surprising, given the world of reality television's ethos of "lie your way to the top," and product commercials -- from those that pitch sugar-rich cereals to pre-teens, to those that blithely portray a mom's lie to her daughter about wearing the kid's sweater. They all romanticize or justify dishonesty in order to sell a product. Nothing new there. Swap Sugar Pops for the Tea Party and you've got a political product sold on lies.
Who do we trust? Who can we trust? In a world where the NSA and Homeland Security probably know what I'm wearing as I'm typing this article, we are awash in information, but bereft of knowledge and integrity; flooded with stories, but left to die in a drought of truth.