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Editorial: A thousand words

Students from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., stand in front of Native American Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips Jan. 18 near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in this still image from video. An exchange between the students and Phillips Jan. 18 was vilified on social media the following day, but the immediate accusations the students showed racist behavior were stepped back as more details of the entire situation emerged. (CNS photo/Kaya Taitano, social media via Reuters)

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In recent years, the longstanding March for Life has received considerably less media coverage than it did back in the 1980s and ’90s. Until 36 hours after this year’s March for Life ended, it appeared that the pattern would continue.

And then The Picture went viral, and everything changed.

The image is striking: Nick Sandmann, a young white man wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat, stands on the left, amid a crowd of his fellow students from Covington (Ky.) Catholic High School. On the right stands Nathan Phillips, a Native American whom The Washington Post describes as a “veteran in the indigenous rights movement.”

In the middle — in the space between Sandmann’s and Phillips’s faces — stand all of us. Our personal reactions to that photo, and to the very short video clips that initially accompanied it, reveal just how caught up each of us is in the ephemera of politics, the 24-hour news cycle and social media. Those reactions tell us nothing, though, about what did or did not happen on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the afternoon of Jan. 18.

That photo was a Rorschach test. For some, that Sandmann and his fellow students were wearing MAGA caps told them all they needed to know. The denunciations of these teenagers were swift and severe, and many of them came from fellow Catholics, pro-life activists and organizers of the March who declared the students’ behavior opposed “everything the March stands for.” The Diocese of Covington and administrators at Covington Catholic released a joint statement “condemn[ing] the actions” of the students, promising an investigation, and raising the specter of expulsion. There was no need to wait for an explanation from the students, or independent reports to put the brief scene into context. A picture is worth a thousand words.

When Sandmann released an extensive statement, and a nearly two-hour video of the event emerged that confirmed the statement in its details, some — though not all — of those who had jumped to swift and certain conclusions acknowledged that they had been wrong. The students, who had been told by their chaperones to assemble on the steps of the memorial to wait for their buses, had been subjected to over an hour of profanity and attacks on their faith by members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, a perennially obnoxious presence at large gatherings in Washington, D.C. Such deliberate acts of provocation — by political, religious and other groups — whenever a crowd is gathered have long been more the norm than the exception in Washington, D.C.

Knowing that, though, is the responsibility of adults, and not of teens on their first trip to our nation’s capital. In our polarized climate, wearing the MAGA hats made the kids living targets. Had the school administrators, whose first reaction to The Picture was to threaten expulsion, instead exercised proper oversight over their students before and during the March, the entire incident may have been avoided.

In the end, it was the swiftness and ferocity of reactions to The Picture that were opposed to “everything the March stands for.” In our social-media-fueled rush to judgment, the humanity of Nick Sandmann and his classmates — and of Nathan Phillips and his associates, and, yes, even of the Black Hebrew Israelites whose foul-mouthed attacks on the students and their Catholic Faith set events in motion — was tossed to the wayside. A picture became propaganda, and we all forgot that the dignity of every human being, from the moment of conception to natural death, extends to everyone involved — even teenage boys wearing MAGA hats.

OSV Editorial Board: Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young

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