Comet Ping Pong

Two years ago, I spent the summer with my cousins in Washington, D.C. There's a restaurant a few blocks from their house called Comet Ping Pong: the gimmick is they sell pizza and have a lot of ping pong tables, and diners can play while they eat. One muggy evening, I walked there with my cousin. We ate pizza and played ping pong. It was fun.

Two days ago, a North Carolina man named Edgar Welch walked into Comet Ping Pong and fired an AR-15 rifle, as part of his "investigation" into whether or not a child-trafficking ring led by Secretary Hillary Clinton was operating out of the neighborhood pizzeria.

I learned about this flabbergasting turn of events when it was reported by the New York Times, in an article that brought me through several different reactions.

Upon seeing the headline "In Washington Pizzeria Attack, Fake News Brought Real Guns," I felt a pang of incredulous sorrow. The headline refers to a ludicrous accusation, propagated by right-wing extremists, which began circulating shortly before last month's election: that Hillary Clinton was running a child prostitution organization, and that Comet Ping Pong was its clandestine headquarters. I thought I knew what was coming, and I thought it would include a death toll. Had the blind hatred of Hillary Clinton, whipped up by a yearslong onslaught of malicious lies and mischaracterizations, finally boiled over into violence?

As I read on, I was relieved to see that nobody was dead or injured. Rather than coming to settle a score, it turned out that Welch had come to "self-investigate" the stories he had been seeing about Comet Ping Pong, child trafficking, and Hillary Clinton.

At this point, I felt outraged. It seemed obvious to me that Welch was mentally ill—how else could he possibly believe that a presidential candidate and lifelong advocate for children was holding child sex slaves in this pizzeria?—so why the hell did he have a gun? You can't give guns to the deranged, or this happens!

In hindsight, that was a stupid and frankly douchey assumption, but I'll circle back to that shortly. Enraged at my belief that a crazy person, hopped up on brazenly ridiculous right-wing propaganda, had acquired an AR-15 and a pistol—and happy about what I thought was the miracle that nobody had been killed—I kept reading. That's when I understood the error of my assumption.

As it turns out, Welch isn't clinically insane. According to people interviewed for the article, Welch is a "doting father," a man of "family values." The desire to break up a child trafficking ring seems consistent with these descriptors, and wanting to "investigate" rather than barge in guns blazing (I haven't spoken with Welch, but I'm willing to say that if you fire a gun in a crowded pizzeria and don't hit anybody, you probably weren't trying to) indicates some level of analytical thinking.

The article goes on to explain that he was motivated to drive six hours from his home to Comet Ping Pong out of concern; he believed that children were or could be being abused at this faraway pizzeria. He wanted to find out for himself if this was happening, and if it was, to help the children. What he found was that the child trafficking ring was a hoax, and when the police arrived, he surrendered readily to them.

It was at about this point that I realized how wrong my first and second assumptions about what transpired were. Welch wasn't on a hate-fueled rampage or a psychotic mission; he was just confused. He had been reading false stories about Comet Ping Pong, stories that to most of us would seem so bizarre as to be obviously untrue. Yet, for whatever reason, Welch wasn't able to recognize the story as false.

No, you can't just walk into a restaurant and fire a gun. But if we turn our attention to the circumstances that led to this scenario, I think we will find two important underlying lessons.

The first is that we are in desperate need of better education. One of the ugly truths revealed by this election is that many Americans don't have the tools they need to differentiate between reality and fiction, and Sunday's incident was only further proof of that. Because of the poor state of education in this country, untold thousands of us are languishing in the darkness of ignorance, where we are easily manipulated and misled.

Imagine someone who lives in an environment where everything they see on social media says the world is flat. When they turn on the radio, they hear the world is flat. In the news, they read quotes from the politicians they look up to as figures of authority, or from 'experts' at an organization with a respectable-looking name: "The world is flat." Now imagine that person received a second-rate education that left them not knowing how to identify reliable sources, or think critically and skeptically about information presented to them. How can they possibly be expected to know that the world is actually round?

Millions of our fellow Americans live in a comparable situation. That doesn't mean that they're stupid or gullible, but rather that without sufficient education, one can't be expected to effectively question the untrue. It's up to the rest of us to bring them back into the fold of reason, both by earnestly engaging with them, and by building an education system that promotes knowledge and inspires thinking.

The second lesson is that there's a fundamental problem with the way many people think and talk about "the other half." Despite how widely that idea has been reported, no one much seems to be going to any great lengths to change it. This doesn't just apply to individuals—after Welch peacefully surrendered to police, the situation was reported as an "attack." News outlets described Welch as a "gunman," a word they should well know connotes the mass-killings our country suffers all too often. Welch's words and deeds suggest he never intended to hurt anyone, but the reporting seems liable to suggest otherwise. That's wrong.

Of course, I’m guilty too. Before I knew the whole story, I assumed the worst of Welch—not once, but twice. Because he was motivated by extremist propaganda, I decided that he was either extremist nuts or just plain old nuts, instead of giving him the benefit of the doubt. I dismissed someone who wanted to “help the children” as hateful and irrational, without knowing anything about him.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard some variant of “63 million votes for Trump means there are 63 million racists in this country,” I’d have too many nickels. If I had a nickel for every time I heard something similarly sweeping and dismissive, from either side of the aisle, I’d have many more. Our country is deeply divided at this point in history, and it’s an urgent priority that we change that. Let’s start by dropping the ridicule and judgement, and by viewing each other in good faith.

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