Over winter break, The New York Times published an in-depth investigation on the attacks that took place last year on the American embassy in Benghazi. If we are to believe The Times, the attack was neither the spontaneous demonstration which the Obama administration initially claimed nor the carefully planned work of al-Qaeda, as Republicans have insisted. Instead it was a much more complicated event, born of long simmering hostility toward the American presence and inflamed by a hateful video denigrating Islam making the rounds on social media at that moment.
It is not surprising that this attack turned out to be something that defies easy explanation. But we should not simply conclude from the Times article that politicians lie. The picture that the Times paints, with its combination of several different forces coinciding in a single moment with disastrous results, is a genuinely complicated one. It takes time to piece together. If, as a nation, we learn one political lesson from the aftermath of this tragedy, it should be that not only do politicians and governments sometimes lie, they also sometimes just do not know.
The dawn of Internet journalism, with articles and information updated at a breakneck pace, has narrowed the space between an event and its coverage. Every piece of news is an instant piece of news. Previously, a tragedy might have taken days to fully enter the public consciousness, but now people may be discussing it within the hour. As a result, the entire public reaction is compressed.
If it takes three days for you to hear about the sinking of the Titanic, you might expect to read a statement by the president within a week, and you might hope that a list of survivors will be available within the month. You might hope that within a half year or so you could read a report explaining the specifics of what really happened. Now, though, you would hear of the sinking within minutes of it occurring. Suddenly, the president addressing the tragedy in a week’s time seems almost insultingly slow. You expect to know within a few days what has become of all the passengers, otherwise the investigators seems neglectful and incompetent. Perversely, you probably forget entirely about the report to come in a half year. By then you are already fixated on the fourth or fifth disaster to have occurred in the intervening months.
Of course, while the newsreader’s timeline has shortened drastically, this is not true of the politician addressing the public. Gathering accurate information, especially in remote or hostile parts of the world, is still an incredibly difficult, time-consuming task. Unweaving the many threads of the Benghazi attack took The New York Times over a year. Even given their superior access to information, it seems unrealistic to expect the Obama administration to do the same within five days.
And yet, five days after the attack, Susan Rice was touring the talk shows giving the administration’s position on the attack. And it was her statements, made in a time of confusion, which came to lay the groundwork for Republican charges of a conspiracy. The frantic pace of the modern media forced the administration to comment before it had the facts to do so and the resulting confusion shaped the public discourse on the attack. As a result, we have been led down the rabbit hole of al-Qaeda in Libya, ignoring the more relevant question of relations between America and the local Libyan militias.
The sped-up news cycle puts pressure on public figures to appease the demanding public. Politicians are constantly criticized for not addressing events quickly enough, or for not immediately hitting the right note, for not providing all the relevant information as soon as possible. But really, this obsession with speed is a disservice to the public. The focus on continuous updates precludes a meaningful response to the event. It takes too long to gather that information, so instead the focus shifts to political grandstanding as rival parties seek to frame the events they themselves do not yet understand in a favorable light.
If we want to hold our politicians to a high standard of discourse we must find a way to delay our reactions, to stay our political judgment until what has happened is actually understood. Meaningful discussion can only take place when the facts are available. If the framework for conversation is established before anyone knows what really happened, as was the case with Benghazi, then nothing of value can result.
Isa Qasim is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.