In al­legedly fak­ing at­tack, Smol­lett hurt count­less oth­ers

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY EU­GENE ROBIN­SON Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group

I hope ac­tor Jussie Smol­lett gets the psy­cho­log­i­cal help he ap­par­ently needs. And I hope au­thor­i­ties in Chicago throw the book at him, be­cause the lies he is ac­cused of telling will likely bring great harm to in­no­cent vic­tims.

Smol­lett’s ar­rest Thurs­day for al­legedly fil­ing a false po­lice re­port came as no sur­prise. His im­prob­a­ble tale – he said he was ac­costed last month by two men who yelled racist and ho­mo­pho­bic slurs, beat him up, put a noose around his neck and doused him with bleach, with one of the men say­ing that “this is MAGA (Make Amer­ica Great Again) coun­try” – sounded like a page from the first draft of a re­jected screen­play.

Real life doesn’t hap­pen that way. Ac­tual white su­prem­a­cists and ho­mo­phobes don’t stroll through the streets of Chicago on a bit­terly cold night, car­ry­ing a hate-crimes kit of rope and Clorox, hop­ing to chance upon some­one who is black, gay and mod­estly fa­mous. They don’t hurl per­fectly scripted in­sults.

The minute I heard Smol­lett’s story, I sus­pected it would even­tu­ally fall apart – and I feared the po­ten­tial con­se­quences for gen­uine vic­tims of gen­uine hate crimes.

Smol­lett was ar­rested just one day after fed­eral au­thor­i­ties re­leased ev­i­dence of the kind of grave threat that re­ally does ex­ist. They an­nounced the ar­rest of Christo­pher Has­son, a 49-year-old U.S. Coast Guard lieu­tenant and self-de­scribed white na­tion­al­ist, for al­legedly amass­ing a deadly ar­se­nal in his Sil­ver Spring, Mary­land, home and plan­ning to as­sas­si­nate a list of pub­lic of­fi­cials and jour­nal­ists.

The men­ace of such white-su­prem­a­cist ter­ror­ism is real and grow­ing. De­ba­cles such as Smol­lett’s ap­par­ent hoax do noth­ing but pro­vide ex­cuses to ig­nore the threat.

Were the news me­dia too cred­u­lous in their ini­tial re­port­ing about Smol­lett’s claim? Not nec­es­sar­ily. A well-known per­son re­ported be­ing as­saulted, and Chicago po­lice said they were tak­ing his story se­ri­ously. Smol­lett had suf­fered some mi­nor in­juries and been treated at a hospi­tal. I don’t know what re­porters were sup­posed to do ex­cept re­port the facts as far as they were known.

Po­lice now say that the scratches on Smol­lett’s face were self-in­flicted and that he paid two men $3,500 to rough him up – gen­tly – so he could be­come more fa­mous and de­mand more money for his role in the Fox tele­vi­sion se­ries “Em­pire.” But no­body knew that at first. When new facts grad­u­ally emerged that cast doubt on Smol­lett’s ac­count, those facts were re­ported.

Was there, in gen­eral, an ea­ger­ness to be­lieve Smol­lett be­cause of the at­mos­phere Pres­i­dent Trump has cre­ated? Prob­a­bly – and, I would ar­gue, quite un­der­stand­ably.

Ac­cord­ing to the FBI, there were 7,175 hate­crime in­ci­dents in this coun­try in 2017 – a big jump from 2016, when there were 6,121 such in­ci­dents. (Those fig­ures surely min­i­mize the real prob­lem, since many ju­ris­dic­tions do not re­port hate crimes to the FBI at all.) Re­gard­ing in­ci­dents in 2017 in which vic­tims were tar­geted be­cause of race, 2,013 at­tacks were against African-Amer­i­cans ver­sus 741 against whites. Of in­ci­dents in which vic­tims were tar­geted be­cause of re­li­gion, the vast ma­jor­ity were against Jews and Mus­lims. There were more than a thou­sand anti-LGBT in­ci­dents ver­sus just 32 clas­si­fied as anti-het­ero­sex­ual.

Po­lice of­fi­cials in Chicago, where the mur­der rate is out of con­trol, had to waste time and re­sources on a wild goose chase. Worse, the next vic­tim of an ac­tual hate crime might not be be­lieved.

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