October 29, 2018

LIEBERMAN | White Perpetrators Shouldn’t Be Protected

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There are columns that I sit down to write that I know aren’t ready. They aren’t cooked yet. They are still angry, or tearful, or unfolding before us. But it is the current state of the world, and in two weeks, when I sit down to write my next column, there will be something completely new to mull or suffer over — something new to struggle to write.

This is hard to say because I don’t even want to look straight at it. I find great pain in even acknowledging what happened this past week, let alone finding the words to respond to it, to offer some writerly wisdom, some solace, some critique, something new. It feels so old — like a workhorse beaten to the ground.

I thought I would write this column about the violent, drug-induced incident on North Campus. I would write about trauma, especially sexual trauma. I would write about the incredible bystander intervention. Somehow, I couldn’t find a way to talk about the perpetrator. I didn’t know if this column would be incomplete without mention of him. However, any information you could possibly want is posted in the Sun news article. His full name, his photo, his place on campus, his place at home… Maybe I can’t speak about him because he’s already been too spoken about.

One of my Facebook friends and former co-intern at NBCUniversal, Romaissaa Benzizoune, posted a photo yesterday of the print version of The New York Times, with a headline that boldly stated, “Rampage Kills 11 at a Synagogue.” She pointed out the lack of agency given to the murderer himself. Now, I can’t stop noticing it. There have been so many attacks on safety, peace and freedom this week. There are so many opportunities to cover grief, loss and hate in the media. The more I’ve looked, the more I’ve seen that the white perpetrators of terrorist acts are protected, while people of color are villainized.

I can’t help but think the media wants to protect white people and their futures, and this affects how their crimes get reported. When it comes to a crime perpetrated by a person of color, however, The Sun seemed to take a perpetrator-based approach to telling the story. I’m not saying what he did wasn’t horrible. Something inside of me stirs and makes me so sick every time I think about it. I am just concerned with the way that my own community wrote these articles.

I can’t stop thinking about the people who have been attacked or killed this week. There were the 11 innocent Jewish people in their place of worship. Many of the most prominent anti-Trump figures were sent bombs in the mail. Two people of color were killed outside of a church by a white supremacist. There were the women attacked on North Campus. We can go deeper, there is more to talk about. There is more violence, and division, and pain, and victimhood. There are more instances of abuse. But an opinion column can’t just be a list, so I have to come here to say something, even if I’m not ready, even if it’s not cooked, even if I’m tearful, and afraid, and feeling like writerly wisdom might be going extinct. I know there is a way to learn, to be better, to be more prepared and more equipped to tell stories.

The way that we speak about violence matters. It matters to who was hurt and it matters to the community that was affected by the hurting. When you hear about something so horrible happening, that loss of words, the sickness that slides up into the throat, it feels like a plea to be careful with what you say, how you say it — and we should listen.

As journalists, it may seem like our first and foremost duty is to get the story out as quickly and as accurately as possible. However, the way we write affects what people believe. I beg this community of writers and truth-tellers to watch our context, our wording, our subconscious biases and our stories. A rampage didn’t kill eleven people in a synagogue — an anti-Semitic person did. I wrote a column this semester about saying what we mean. In these situations, I fully believe that we can’t just say what we mean, now, we have to say what this means — for us, for the world, for peace and for safety. Please be safe out there, please take care of each other and take great care with these stories.

Sarah Lieberman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Blueberries for Sal runs every other Tuesday this semester. She can be reached at slieberman@cornellsun.com.