According to the Chicago Police Department, it’s official. “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett allegedly fabricated the supposed attack that was supposedly carried out by two Trump-supporting racist homophobes. What’s more, his motives weren’t even as pure as those of other hate-crime hoaxers, who seek merely attention, sympathy, and to “raise awareness” of prejudice in America. To hear the Chicago PD tell it, Smollett did it for the money.
Many have looked back on how foolish it was for so many political and cultural elites to rush to judgment on this case. In the process, these influential figures stopped treating a crime like it was a crime—deserving of all applicable scrutiny and impartiality. Instead, they treated it as an opportunity to moralize about a social sickness in which the alleged victim and his attackers were only pawns, buffeted about by cosmic forces beyond their control. Less attention has been devoted to the unbearably awkward current position of those who rushed to judgment and how much credibility they’ve sacrificed.
Sen. Kamala Harris, a 2020 presidential candidate, rushed to call the attack “an attempted modern-day lynching,” describing Smollett as “one of the kindest, most gentle human beings” she knew. “We must confront this hate,” she concluded. When confronted with her words, as Smollett’s story began to look more and more like just that, a story, Harris appeared visibly uncomfortable. “Which tweet, what tweet?” she asked her interlocutor. Reminded of her words, Harris stammered a bit before saying what she should have said in the first place: “The facts are still unfolding, and I’m very concerned.”
Another 2020 aspirant, Sen. Cory Booker, also called Smollett’s ordeal an attempted “lynching,” and used the opportunity of this attack to promote his proposed anti-lynching legislation. “We’re seeing just a vicious, horrific, cruel violence that’s motivated by bias and hate,” he added in response to a question about his bill. But when asked to reflect on his remarks after Chicago police sources began telling reporters that Smollett was thought to have potentially orchestrated his own attack, Booker, too, rediscovered the virtues of due process. “I’m going to withhold until all the information actually comes out from on the record sources,” he said.
“The racist, homophobic attack on Jussie Smollett is an affront to our humanity,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted. “No one should be attacked for who they are or whom they love.” In what amounts to a modern-day mea culpa, Pelosi has since deleted the tweet.
Politicians weren’t the only irresponsible observers here. CNN anchor Don Lemon, who has called Smollett’s ordeal “personal” to him because they are friends and in regular communication, said the attack the actor allegedly endured was disturbing but not particularly surprising. He initially dismissed those who speculated about the credulity-testing details of the attack but now claims that he and other members of the gay African-American community were the “early skeptics” of Smollett’s claims. “In the court of public of opinion, Jussie has lost,” Lemon lamented.
There are surely more embarrassing incidents like these to come. GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis, GQ’s Joshua Rivera, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bobby Rush all leapt to condemn those who dared to question Smollett’s story or even to perform basic journalistic best practices (like describing the attack as “possible”). A true accounting of this episode must compel these and other observers to acknowledge that they had no interest in justice in this case. Not by any common definition of the word. Their interest was in holding tight to the idea that America in the age of Trump is irredeemably racist and violent.
The fact that a violent hate crime did not occur in this case is good news, and it should be celebrated. But you haven’t seen many celebrations. Instead, there is sorrow over the damage Smollett has done to legitimate claims of bigotry or prejudicial violence, and there is anger at how he dragged his city’s reputation through the mud. What’s missing here is contrition. And that’s a tragedy, because some have a lot to apologize for.