It was tailor-made for the anti-immigration press: a crazed man wearing a suicide vest “filled with gasoline and gunpowder” enters a supermarket in a small town in northwestern Spain, shouts “Allahu Akbar!” and opens fire. Mercifully no one is killed, but customers flee in terror. The story runs in a local paper, is quickly picked up by an assortment of media in the US and the UK, and then shared widely on Twitter and Facebook. Anti-Muslim figures claim, with heads shaking in sage disapproval, that the attack symbolizes everything that is wrong with Islam.
One small problem: it didn’t happen.
Yes, a man did enter a supermarket in the town of Ourense and fired shots. That, however, is where fact ends and fantasy begins. The suicide vest? Didn’t exist. Shooting at customers? No, he hit some bottles. Crazy lunatic on a rampage? At one point in the surveillance video we can see the man sitting down and eating a banana. Was the town in shock? No. What about his screaming “Allahu Akbar”? It was then reported that this was actually a man from the Basque region “with decreased mental faculties”, and that someone mistook the words he spoke in Euskara (a regional language) for Arabic.
It speaks to the nature of bigotry that fabricated events such as what did not take place in Ourense are so quickly and uncritically picked up by certain elements of the press, and that it is done without the slightest concern for the personal and material consequences of publication.
Kellyanne Conway’s now infamous claim that Muslim refugees were responsible for the non-existent “Bowling Green Massacre” never got off the ground, yet her savage indifference to smearing all Muslim refugees as potential – even likely – terrorists gives us a clear indication that these lies are meant to infect the intellectual, ethical and humanitarian drinking water of our democracy.
If the lie sticks, that’s great. If it does not stick, that’s no loss. The point was always to add another rhetorical layer of doubt and suspicion to the sediment of our national bigotry. There was no Bowling Green Massacre? Well, OK, but there could have been one, and it would have been a Muslim who did it. In the flexible world of bigotry, we can even condemn people for crimes committed in our minds.
The key point is that the political economy of anti-immigrant, Islamophobic news is such that the fabrication of stories implicating Muslims is worth it: those who start the rumors (whatever their reasons) know that there are media outlets willing to smear an entire religious group. The media outlets, in turn, are willing to run questionable material because it is red meat to a large portion of their base. It sells. Later apologies, if they come at all, are of no concern.
In one of the more astonishing stories of 2017, last week the German tabloid Bild claimed that on New Year’s Eve in Frankfurt a huge group of intoxicated Muslim men, most of them refugees, had formed a “rioting sex mob” and assaulted scores of women. The story contained “eye-witness” accounts and even interviews with purported victims. Naturally, it was picked up internationally and spread via social media.
One week later, however, police in Frankfurt declared that the story was completely false: no such sexual assaults had been reported, the “victim” in question was not even in Frankfurt at the time, and two individuals were now under investigation for starting the false rumors and wasting police resources.
Bild is the largest-selling newspaper in Europe with a circulation of around 3 million per day, but it has come under attack from other outlets in Germany for stoking anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim flames. When the police announced that the Frankfurt incident was false, Bild published an apology, and claimed that the story, ”in no way met the journalistic standards” of the paper. But the fact remains that it was published and reproduced globally, and no amount of retractions, excuses or apologies from the outlets that ran with it will heal the damage.
The perverted power of bigotry is that, once firmly entrenched, facts and logic make few dents in its armor. Even blatant lies like Kellyanne Conway’s “Bowling Green Massacre” can be explained away as understandable mistakes. After all, those you have stereotyped are “likely” to do bad things, and so suspicion is not only logical, it’s patriotic. It is the same logic that allows people in the US to see police officers shooting unarmed black suspects in the back, and say, “Yes, but why was he stopped by the police in the first place?”
So, as we contemplate the social, political and media environment in which Donald Trump has attempted to ban many Muslims from entering the United States, let us spare a thought for the Muslim attacks that never were, and the media coverage they were always guaranteed to receive. In the world of bigotry, fake stories don’t matter when you are discussing people who are seen as criminal by their very existence. It makes life, and politics, very simple.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010