Paul Pillar

The Public Interpretation of Salient Events

The amount of commentary about the shooting incident in Tucson has been overwhelming. The op-ed pages of Tuesday's New York Times and Washington Post, for example, are entirely consumed by it—nine columns and articles altogether. It is the sort of attention overkill that, with due sympathy to those who suffered losses in the incident, leads me to start tuning out and reading less commentary and news coverage than I usually do. The overkill stimulates some thoughts, however, about how the public, and those who try to shape the public's opinions, react to a select few events that are especially dramatic or traumatic.

We all know the subtext underlying comments on the recent incident, which involve issues of partisan discord, the impact of strident spewers of invective, and gun control. But we are witnessing another pattern that occurs from time to time after other salient incidents that happen to strike a chord of public feeling even though they may lack those particular ingredients. That pattern is one of highly episodic attention to public issues, with the attention reflecting not the intrinsic importance of the issues but instead the drama or emotion of an incident that happens to become associated with the issue. That is a really poor way for the public to be educated about the issues, and it results in some serious public misunderstandings.

Start with the overkill itself. Isn't there anything else going on in the world about which pundits could stimulate our thinking, with the stimulation outweighing whatever could possibly be added to what is already being said about this one incident? This is six-year-old soccer, with everyone crowding around the ball.  (I recognize the irony in my not writing today about some entirely unrelated topic.)  

Attention also is misplaced when the precipitating event is something that is essentially a random, unpredictable event that could just as easily not have occurred. A lone unbalanced gunman doing his thing is a prime example of this kind of event. It is true that random events can get us to thinking about larger issues. But the trouble with hitching thinking about an issue to such an event is that the specific facts of the event—which might have been much different if a different random event had occurred instead—skew our understanding of the larger issue, perhaps vitiating any overall lessons that one should draw. The coarsening of public discourse as a result of the bloviation of a Glenn Beck or a Sarah Palin is a significant issue. But whether one particular guy with a Glock in Arizona was or was not specifically agitated by their comments—and no doubt this factual question will be examined in minute detail in the weeks ahead—tells us very little about the larger attributes and impact of the discourse.

A salient event that struck an emotional public chord over four decades ago was the disturbance at Kent State University in 1970 that resulted in four students being killed. Although this is another incident that obviously was a tragedy for those directly and personally affected, there never was a good reason the incident ought to have acquired anywhere near the perceived importance that it did in the public eye. It still occupies a prominent place on most timelines of events associated with the Vietnam War. But the main cause was poor crowd control techniques on the part of an Ohio National Guard unit that was not properly trained and equipped to perform that function. With a little better training, or different behavior by the demonstrators, the incident never would have happened. And of course, countless other angry anti-war demonstrations took place across the country without anyone getting killed. What happened at Kent State was not some premeditated, Tiananmen Square-type operation, yet the incident's place in the pantheon of Vietnam War-related events almost makes it seem like it was. Because of this perception, the incident—far from helping to educate Americans about issues surrounding that war—became a distraction and detraction from public understanding of the war, its consequences, and the beliefs and political dynamics that led to it.

Some of these same unfortunate consequences of forming conclusions about larger issues based on a few salient events occur even when the event itself undeniably has more intrinsic importance. This was true of the granddaddy of dramatic, traumatic events in recent American history: the 9/11 terrorist attack. It had such a huge impact on American public consciousness—and understandably so, given the immediate fatal, physical impact—that it has rigidly molded Americans' beliefs about the nature of international terrorism and how to counter it. Americans tend to believe that terrorism is all about a group called al-Qaeda, about safe havens in Afghanistan, and about the impact on U.S. interests consisting of large-scale attacks within the United States. The salience of 9/11 also has led to the belief that the problem and the “war” against it all began in September 2001, with little or no awareness of all that transpired in terrorism and counterterrorism before that. All of these beliefs have been detrimental to public understanding of terrorism and continue to have unfortunate effects on public policy related to terrorism.

The way the American public interprets, or overinterprets, salient events probably is inevitable, for reasons similar to why dramatic fiction often shapes public beliefs about the real world more than intelligent nonfiction does. Sometimes the best thing one can do is just not to join the crowd around the soccer ball.