A fantastical rumor broke out within hours of the World Trade Center towers falling that many New Yorkers will recall. A man who had been standing atop one of the structures, the story went, “rode the building down” and survived.
The scenario was preposterous — nothing could endure those collapses — but we so badly wanted to believe it that some of us did for a while. It was the need for hope.
Rumors flew, too, when COVID-19 came. Miracle cures emerged — an anti-malaria drug, liquid silver, lavender oil, cow urine, radical fasting.
None of these treatments worked but all were understandable; we desperately want to believe.
But in the months following 9/11, the rumors gave way to conspiracy theories. These were not the stuff of magical thinking, they were the work of the cruel, the idiotic and the profit seeker.
The same is now happening with COVID-19, and some people who know better are casually promoting this filth on air and online to fan flames and increase viewership. They know who they are.
One notorious Youtube personality, whose name I’ll gleefully withhold, has convinced millions around the world that a U.S. Army reservists brought the virus to China. The accused reservist has never had COVID-19, but who needs facts in the world of digital sensationalism?
Others are spinning asinine theories blaming 5G technology, “globalists” and the pharmaceutical industry for the pandemic. Everywhere there are takers, giving credence to the adage that a lie travels halfway around the globe before the truth ties its shoes.
A third level of rumor mongering is more pernicious still. We’re seeing it emerge in the ongoing propaganda war between China and the United States. These politically motivated attacks are dangerous and demeaning to both nations.
China will do what China does, but the United States needs to be better — because we are and because the world is watching. A junk-information tit for tat with communist China would badly damage American credibility.
Facts are fair game, and the world needs to be reminded of them daily: The Chinese government withheld critical information in the early days of the virus; it arrested Chinese citizens trying to warn the world; it expelled Western journalists demanding answers and it drove a baseless worldwide narrative outrageously accusing the United States of unleashing COVID-19 on China.
But careless talk of China creating the virus as a bioweapon — or intentionally releasing it for hegemonial gain — is simply unfactual. U.S. political leaders need to say so because we are a nation anchored by truth, and truth always wins out in the end.
China’s communist government, on the other hand, has been moored in subterfuge and deceit since the days of Mao, and everybody knows it. History will one day catch up with it. Of that we must remain faithful.
A final level of disinformation concern should be most worrisome to Americans. If news reports are true that a “blame-China” narrative will be front and center in the remaining months of the U.S. presidential campaign, we are walking into truly dangerous waters.
That narrative would involve one candidate painting the other as dangerously compromised by the Chinese, with the other likely firing back along the same lines. Bad characters around the world would almost certainly wade into the debate semi-surreptitiously, ala Russia 2016.
One candidate would be elected, but the bigger winner would be Beijing — Beijing and everyone else hoping to see America tear itself apart.
Let’s not go there. Really let’s not.
William F.B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.