The real harm caused by truth deniers

Published 12:14 am Monday, June 19, 2017

By Nelba L. Márquez-Greene

Special to The Washington Post

Last Sunday, I tweeted about Megyn Kelly’s decision to interview Alex Jones for her NBC show: “Hey @Megynkelly, let me know if you want to give his victims equal air time. Promoting this fool is bad news. Do not encourage his abuse.” On Monday, after my tweet went viral, I woke to a firestorm. Why did I think it is a bad idea for mainstream media to give voice to deniers of tragedy? I will tell you why.

I am writing this while sitting in a Starbucks in Newtown, Connecticut, on the last day of school, anticipating the return of one child when I should be getting back two. My daughter, Ana Grace, was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting of December 2012. She will always be 6 years old. She will never give another Father’s Day present to my husband, Jimmy. I wish her death were only a hoax.

Deniers of tragedy cause unfathomable pain to families who have experienced catastrophic and public losses. It disrupts the grief process, which is unending. Sometimes, it threatens their physical health and safety.

I cannot begin to describe the pain of experiencing death threats and harassment on top of mourning the loss of a beloved family member. Five years after the Sandy Hook shooting, we receive emails weekly suggesting that our daughter did not die. Or that President Barack Obama was behind her death.

Deniers of tragedy also threaten the health and wellness of thousands of vulnerable and disconnected people in our country who seek a “why” to events that can never clearly have one. The government didn’t “stage Newtown,” and I am not a “crisis actor.” But yes, things “just don’t add up about Sandy Hook.” What doesn’t add up is that there still has been no meaningful legislative response to help curb this kind of violence. And that we don’t run our mental-health and other community programs nearly as well as we should.

Deniers and other hoaxers cause real harm to their followers. Ask the man about to be sentenced for shooting up a family restaurant in Washington because he believed the nonsense — also spread by Jones — about some “Pizzagate” child-abuse ring. Ask the Sandy Hook denier who was sentenced last week to five months in jail for threats against a victim’s family.

And deniers of tragedy are a danger to all Americans. Victims of tragedy require and deserve our support. Deniers create a distraction that shifts focus from compassion to craziness, that throws sand in the wheels of the action we should be taking to create a safer society. In a country experiencing almost weekly tragedies, we should not normalize this reaction.

Hours after a gunman in Virginia shot several people at a congressional baseball practice, critically injuring a member of Congress, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and his Democratic counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, called for unity. In contrast, Jones tweeted unhinged theories of the crime, “The #VAshooting is a leftist terror attack.” By Thursday, his InfoWars headline was “MSM Fuels Mass Shooting to Blame Trump.” Jones may think of himself as a “performance artist,” but his performance sows division and imperils all of us.

There is a special insult in Jones’s segment being aired on Kelly’s program on Father’s Day. The grief of fathers is often ignored. In Newtown and across the country, bereaved fathers often grieve the loss of their loved ones without any support. On a weekend that honors dads, showcasing Jones — a man who has denied that our children were murdered — shows a breathtaking lack of sensitivity.

Kelly’s rationale for airing the interview is to “shine a light” on conspiracy theorists. I would argue that we can shine a light on better things. We can shine a light on brave communities that have to reorganize after tragedy. We can shine a light on grief and the solutions needed to fix some of our problems. We can do better than shining a light on someone willing to make money in a way that causes harm to so many.

As Americans, we will always be curious and courageous in seeking truth. But when this search for truth becomes an exploitative venture to stir up controversy for ratings and financial gain, and here I’m talking about NBC, we must recognize the consequences.

Nelba Márquez-Greene is the founder and executive director of the Ana Grace Project.