OPINION: ‘Us versus them’ mentality hit new low during wildfires

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

The “us versus them” mentality that has been steadily growing in this country over the past decade seems to have reached a new high, or perhaps a “new low,” this week.

While hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians and Oregonians worried about losing their lives, homes, businesses, pets and livestock to wildfires raging out of control across the Pacific Northwest — and millions of us choked on air made hazardous by wildfire smoke — a few members of this community were busy online, spreading unfounded rumors.

Spurred by hundreds of likes and on social media, people posited, without any evidence other than a few frantic “eye witness” reports from unvetted sources and online articles from fringe “media” organizations, that certain political groups — mostly anti-fascists connected to the Black Lives Matter protests in Portland — were setting the wildfires and looting homes in evacuated areas.

First responders frantically tried to quash the rumors. Calls about fake arsonists, they said, were tying up critical 911 lines and distracting firefighters and law enforcement agencies during an unprecedented life-and-death disaster.

On Sept. 10, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Southwest Oregon posted a “stop spreading rumors” plea on its social media channels and said the rumor that extremists were setting wildfires was taxing first responders and emergency services.

On Sept. 11, the Portland branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation said they’d investigated several such reports and found them to be untrue.

“Conspiracy theories and misinformation take valuable resources away from local fire and police agencies working around the clock to bring these fires under control,” the FBI stated in a news release. “Please help our entire community by only sharing validated information from official sources.”

Unfortunately, as the rumors continued to spread, so did the panic on the right. Believing that the FBI, sheriff’s offices and legitimate news organizations were just spreading “fake news,” armed vigilantes set up roadblocks near wildfire evacuation sites in Clackamas County, Oregon, in the name of “stopping looters” and reportedly pulled guns on three Oregon journalists of color.

As one of those independent journalists noted on Twitter afterward: “We’re safe. It’s scary knowing there are people who legitimately think ‘antifa liberals’ are setting these towns on fire … we are very clearly documenting and interviewing folks. Our pictures were taken and so was the car and license plate.”

None of us should want to see this type of extreme “us versus them” taking place, especially during devastating wildfires piled on top of a pandemic. It is no surprise, though, that we are getting more divisive. After all, our president is basing his re-election campaign on the hopes that we will all keep buying into this fake “us versus them” lie.

“The radical left hates you,” read one recent Trump campaign email sent to his supporters. “They hate everything we stand for and they’ll do whatever it takes to BRING US DOWN.”

Trump assures his supporters that crime, committed by left-wing “terrorists,” is rampant and only he can save them. In reality, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crime rates dropped 71 percent and property crimes dropped 69 percent between 1993 and 2018.

There is, however, one troubling data point that seems to have shifted since Trump took office. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “the United States faces a growing terrorism problem that will likely worsen over the next year.”

The source of that terror threat? White supremacists on the far-right. According to a June 17, 2020 CSIS report: “Right-wing attacks and plots account for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994 … Right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90 percent between Jan. 1 and May 8, 2020.”

As first reported in Politico, three draft reports by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security backs up those statistics, calling white supremacy the “most persistent and lethal” threat to our nation, listed above foreign terrorism and Russian disinformation campaigns.

Here is how an article published in Business Insider (not exactly a bastion of progressive politics) put it in July: “Data on extremism in the U.S. also shows that antifa, a loosely affiliated network of left-wing, anti-fascist activists, has not been found responsible for a single death in the past 25 years, based on database assembled by researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and reviewed by The Guardian. During the same time period (1994-present day), U.S.-based far-right and white supremacist groups conducted attacks that left at least 329 people dead.”

The president is lying about the threat coming from “the radical left” just like he, admittedly, on tape during an interview with Bob Woodward, one of the most renowned journalists of all time, lied to us about the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s time for all of us to call him on his lies and start standing up for each other, to stop believing these false “us versus them” thinking. Because when wildfires and pandemics devastate our communities, it doesn’t matter what our political preferences are, we must all mourn — and then rebuild — together.

And, while it may seem dire, especially if you read pretty much any of the comments on social media, there are solutions to our nation’s intense divisions. And while research shows that communicating with those who disagree with you on social media tends to make people even more divisive, bringing people to the table — virtually or in-person — to actually discuss hot-button issues can help soothe the anger and dispel misinformation.

In Camas, residents have an opportunity right now to join in small-group discussions about race and racial inequities — and, perhaps, to come together instead of drifting further apart — through the Camas Public Library’s 12-week Read for Change initiative.

And for those who refuse to give up on their social media usage, we suggest using Facebook and Twitter for good rather than as a space for yet more pointless arguing and misinformation. The recent Cowgirl 911 network — a group of 17,000 that formed practically overnight this month to help rescue and transport more than 20,000 horses, goats, pigs and other animals displaced by the Oregon wildfires — is a wonderful example of how Facebook can be used for good.

We know there are limitations to coming together and healing our divided communities, especially during a pandemic that has been politicized to the point where one side seems to be doing everything they can — wearing face coverings, staying away from groups of people and foregoing visits with extended family and friends — to stop the spread of a virus that is not only deadly but also proving to be far more complicated and dangerous, causing heart and neurological problems even amongst young, healthy people, while the “other side” refuses to wear masks, continues to flaunt public health guidelines by gathering close together without face coverings and seems to have bought into the president’s outright lies.

But the fact remains: If we cannot come together and resist this “us versus them” thinking, our communities will never be able to fully heal from the wildfires, the pandemic or the upcoming election.