The Culture of Preconception

Rushing to Contradictory Judgments

The political response to the Boston Marathon bombings suggests that we live in an age of shrink-wrapped, prepackaged opinions.

When something new comes along, we hasten to squeeze it into whatever frameworks we were carrying around with us a day, a month, or a year before.

When the ghastly news from Boylston Street first hit, there was an immediate divide between those who were sure the attack was a form of Islamic terrorism and those just as persuaded that it was organized by domestic, right-wing extremists. April 15 was Tax Day, after all.

Unless I'm missing some obscure website out there, absolutely no one imagined what turned out to be the case: that the violence was unleashed by two young immigrants with Chechen backgrounds. Chechnya was not on anybody's radar screen -- and it does not appear that the conflict in that rebellious Russian republic actually had much to do with the actions of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that day.

We then moved, with dispatch and without pausing for more information, to show how the event proved that our side was right in any number of ongoing debates.

Opponents of immigration reform used the fact that the brothers are immigrants as a lever to derail the rapidly forming consensus in favor of broad repairs to the system. Supporters countered, defensively, that if there is any lesson here, it's that our approach to immigration needs to be modernized. In truth, this horrifying episode has little to do with immigration reform one way or the other.

We fell back to other familiar ground. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said we should assume these brothers had to be linked with one of our international enemies and that Dzhokhar should therefore be tried by a military tribunal and not in a normal American court, the venue to which his status as an American citizen entitles him.

The Obama administration doesn't get credit for much these days, so it deserves courage points for deciding that Dzhokhar be treated in a way that protects the rights of all other citizens.

And, of course, what I have just written means that I cannot claim to be immune from the very forces I'm describing. My own passion for saner gun laws similarly led me to ask why we have not focused more on how the brothers obtained their weapons or why it was so hard (because of the NRA's opposition to chemical "taggants" in gunpowder) to trace where they got the material to build their bombs.

My faith in a tolerant, pluralistic America made me worry that hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Muslim citizens could become the victims of our anger -- much as Italian-Americans were stereotyped in the days of Sacco and Vanzetti.

I also found it disturbing that we have given scant attention to the April 17 explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that killed 15 people and injured more than 200.

As the labor writer Mike Elk pointed out in a Washington Post commentary, industrial accidents are far more common than acts of terror. We have more control over how we enforce worker safety laws than we do over random acts of violence. Yet we have allowed the Texas story to be buried beneath all our speculation about the Tsarnaev brothers.

Here again, since Elk and I share a concern for labor rights, it's not at all surprising that we'd make this argument. You might ask if my complicity in a culture of preconception should provoke a certain humility.

Well, it does.

I'd acknowledge that none of us can get through the day without making a lot of assumptions. All of us have intellectual, ideological, and moral commitments that we bring to bear upon what we think about almost everything.

But the hyperpolarization of our moment has sped up the rush to (contradictory) judgments, a practice further accelerated by new technologies. We have less patience than ever with the often painstaking task of gathering facts. We are better informed, yet seem more efficient than ever in manufacturing conspiracy theories.

I mistrust moralistic nostalgia for some nonexistent golden age of reason, and I have contentedly joined the bracing new media world. The past had problems of its own.

Still, I'd insist that "crowdsourcing" is quite different from reasoning together, an art we seem to have forgotten. And at the risk of disrupting the productivity gains of the opinion-creation industry in which I happily participate, I wish we were better at remembering three words: Stop and think.

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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Much of the reporting and opinion pieces related to the Boston Marathon bombing have amounted to no more than hot air, and this article is no exception.  I'm not sure what Dionne is trying to say here or what he's trying to accomplish.  I'd rather deal with the facts.  For decades Islamic terrorists have been killing and maiming innocent people, claiming to do so in the name of God, and getting away with it.  They are persecuting Christians with impunity in Muslim led countries.  It is not discriminatory to speak this truth.  Like Dionne, the Obama Administration talks a lot and does nothing about these attacks. 

Bottom line:  Islamic terrorists need to be stopped.  Period.



What is Dionne trying to accomplish in the article?  Is he trying to re-write history?  Or trying to white-wash and obscure the facts, Orwellian style?  It is clear whom he wanted to blame and now, despite his obfuscation around "CHechnya", he is havign trouble understanding the truth.   CHechnya is primarily Muslim but Dionne wants to act like it's jsut a bunch of White Russians.  Islamists in the region exhibit all of the characterisics Dionne should abhor.  They  they want no freedom of religion, freedom of speech or democratic rule and will execute those who don't agree with this repression.  Christians are persecuted and any converted Christian is sentenced to death. Women are especially repressed and discriminated against.  Is Dionne really going to suggest a moral equivalency?  Is her really going to try to mislead the public with this absurd analysis??  Is he really this ignorant and interested in creating a false story?  This is unbeleivable.

Sorry, but I think Mr. Dionne's point is proven by the McCarron and Gravely comments. His point is that there is much we don't know, and that all of us (the commenters obviously  included) come with preconceived notions. And his point is quite succintly stated in his last sentence: Stop and think.

@ Catherine Thiel.

Stop and Think!

Well Mr. Dionne, at least we can agree that those are 3 words American's certainly need to hear. 

Seriously, I wonder if you and I live on the same planet?  How about some FACTS?

Under the Obama Administration, we have had FIVE terrorists attacks, despite the fact that our own president can't bring himself to say or use the words, "Islamic Terrorist."

1.  Boston Bomber

2.  Underware Bomber

3.  Times Square Bomber (thankfully interrupted)

4.  Fort Hood Shooter

5.  Little Rock Recuiting Officer

It's probably not a good idea to get a reader like me on the "stop and think" bandwagon.  My list would be endless, starting with this pronograpy that our president lovin' ,tax payer fundin', left lovin' god Planned Parenthood inflicts on our children under the guise of "sex ed."  It's so bad even the NYT's refuse to run the ad.

Warning Graphic (albeit fine for our 10 year olds):  So, in respect for your topic, I'll leave it at that, and agree to agree that Americans, especially Catholic/Christian Americans, need to rise up and not only "stop and think", but act!




So we have some johnny-come-lately  semi-Muslim terrorists striking our country,  less than a dozen  among the 2 billion Muslims worldwide and some of the above posters suggest a war agianst the 2 billion, led by FOX news......  enough already.

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