The Atrocity Narrative: Ahmaud Arbery
Robert Stacy McCain
by
Announcing the arrests of Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael (YouTube screenshot)

Brunswick is a seaport town on the Georgia coast with which I have a personal connection. During World War II, my maternal grandfather moved to Brunswick to work in the shipyard and my grandmother joined him there, working in the canteen that served meals to the more than 16,000 workers who built 99 “Liberty ships” in the Brunswick yards in a span of about three years. Founded in the 1770s, Brunswick remains today a major harbor, and its picturesque Old Town district attracts many tourists who visit nearby Jekyll Island and St. Simons Island.

Brunswick seldom makes national news, but that changed last month when the New York Times devoted a 1,700-word article to the February shooting death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. Why would this homicide be worthy of national attention? Because Arbery was black and the man who shot him is white, and, until the case became the subject of round-the-clock coverage on CNN, no charges had been filed in the case. Now that 34-year-old Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael, have been charged with murder and aggravated assault, one might hope that journalists would be content to leave the matter to the justice system, but that’s not how the media operate in such cases. Instead, Americans are still being bombarded with updates and commentary on the alleged “lynching” of Arbery, who is described as a “black jogger” who was the victim of racism.

The network’s Jake Tapper on Sunday gave Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms a platform to blame President Trump for Arbery’s death.

Turning a crime into a cause célèbre requires a certain selectivity on the part of the national media. About 14,000 Americans are murdered in an average year, and very few of these homicides ever get more coverage than a two-minute report on the local TV news and a story in the local newspaper. Unless the victim or perpetrator is a celebrity (e.g., O. J. Simpson), or it involves mass casualties (e.g., a school shooting), crimes in America almost never become national news. What is usually involved in those crimes that do attract 24/7 cable-TV coverage and endless editorial commentary is some sort of “social justice” angle. In such cases, what matters is not so much the facts of the crime, but how it highlights an element of the story that can be exploited as a political issue.

For example, if a college student gets murdered by a couple of dopehead hoodlums, such a story would normally be strictly “local news.” But if the murder victim happens to be homosexual and the national media decide that his death was a “hate crime,” the case can become a cause célèbre, which is what happened in the 1999 murder of Matthew Shepard. There was no actual evidence that Shepard’s sexuality was the motive for his murder, but this apparently did not matter to the activists and journalists who portrayed him as a martyr to the cause of LGBT rights. Similarly, a desire to highlight “social justice” issues drove national media coverage of rape accusations against the Duke University lacrosse team in 2006 (which eventually proved false) and an alleged 2012 gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house (which was also disproven).

What happens with stories like this is that the media employ a mode of journalism that I’ve called the Atrocity Narrative. This involves an effort to incite an emotional reaction, conveying to the public a message that they should be angry about some terrible thing that happened, an event which allegedly calls attention to a widespread social problem. When CNN and other national news organizations go into Atrocity Narrative mode, their audience is in effect summoned to join an ad-hoc coalition, echoing a demand to Do Something about whatever issue the story is intended to highlight. This kind of coverage offers limitless opportunities for op-ed columns and cable-news panel discussions, as well as moralistic sloganeering by politicians and Hollywood celebrities in hashtag crusades on social media. In the Ahmaud Arbery case, the Do Something message was amplified by such big names as Taylor Swift (a “senseless, cold-blooded, racially motivated killing”), Justin Timberlake (“If you’re not outraged, you should be”), as well as comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who posted to her Instagram account an “action alert” from the Georgia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP): “Ahmaud Arbery was running in his neighborhood and was chased and murdered by two white supremacists.” To this, DeGeneres added her own message: “This young man was jogging and was hunted down and killed for no reason other than the color of his skin.”

Was this true? Are white supremacists literally hunting down black joggers in Georgia? Is this kind of racist violence so widespread that black residents of Brunswick are in fear of their lives? If all you know is what you learn from celebrity social-media accounts, you might believe this version of the Ahmaud Arbery case. But the truth is more complicated. The question that no one seems to ask when the media go into Atrocity Narrative mode is, why this case? There are nearly 1,200 homicides in an average month in the United States, and rarely does a victim become the subject of a celebrity hashtag campaign. What was it that made this killing in Georgia “go viral”? First, there was the fact that no arrests were made until more than two months after Arbery was killed. Second — and this was what really pushed the case into 24/7 cable-news coverage — there was video of the incident.

The 36-second video clip, which was posted online last Tuesday, shows Arbery running down Satilla Drive, where he is confronted by the McMichaels in a pickup truck. Travis McMichael exits the vehicle with a shotgun and is attacked by Arbery, who punches McMichael and appears to be trying to take away the weapon. Three shots are fired during the struggle, and, after the third shot, Arbery staggers away and collapses. Why did this happen? According to a police report, Gregory McMichael said there had been “several break-ins in the neighborhood and … the suspect was caught on surveillance video.” McMichael told police he had been in his front yard when he saw Arbery “hauling ass” down the street. Believing Arbery might be armed, McMichael and his son both grabbed weapons, and went in pursuit. Apparently, the man who recorded the cell-phone video of the shooting, William “Roddie” Bryan, was also part of the pursuit, which ended in the fatal confrontation near the intersection of Satilla Drive and Holmes Drive.

Why did the McMichaels think this armed pursuit was an appropriate response to a reported burglary? The father is a former police detective who retired after working as an investigator for the district attorney’s office, and thus ought to have known the relevant laws. As the case proceeded, in fact, it was asserted that the McMichaels had committed no crime under Georgia law. Because of the senior McMichael’s previous job, Glynn County district attorney Jackie Johnson recused herself from the case, which was then turned over to George Barnhill, the district attorney in neighboring Ware County. In a letter sent last month to Glynn County police, Barnhill explained why no charges were warranted:

It appears Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael, and Bryan William were following, in “hot pursuit,” burglary suspect, with solid firsthand probable cause, in their neighborhood, and asking/telling him to stop. It appears their intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived. Under Georgia Law this is perfectly legal.…

It clearly appears Travis McMichael and Greg McMichael had firearms being carried in an open fashion. The investigation shows neither of them to be convicted felons or under felony supervision, they were in a motor vehicle owned by Travis McMichael. Under Georgia Law this is legal open carry.…

Given the fact Arbery initiated the fight, at the point Arbery grabbed the shotgun, under Georgia Law, McMichael was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself….

Arbery’s mental health records & prior convictions help explain his apparent aggressive nature and his possible thought pattern to attack an armed man.

However accurate this may be as a summary of relevant Georgia law, it does not render the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery any less outrageous, although it may explain why there was such a long delay in filing charges. In his letter, Barnhill mentions that Arbery’s mother had objected to his handling of the case because Barnhill’s son had worked with Gregory McMichael in the Glynn County district attorney’s office. Barnhill says he is recusing himself from the case and asking the Georgia attorney general to appoint another district attorney to handle the case.

The video recorded by William Bryan was released by a defense attorney, Alan Tucker, who said the McMichaels had fully cooperated with the police investigation and that it was Bryan who identified Arbery as a suspected burglar: “The guy who took the video is the one who saw Arbery coming out of the house and said ‘that’s him.’ ” The attorney said his parents live in Satilla Shores, the neighborhood where the shooting happened. “I didn’t want my community to be burned to the ground,” Tucker told WJXX-TV. “This is a mixed community and they don’t deserve this.”

After the release of Bryan’s video brought the case to nationwide attention, Georgia officials moved quickly. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took charge and, within 36 hours, the McMichaels were arrested. Sunday, Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr called for the federal Department of Justice to investigate the handling of the Arbery case. “We are committed to a complete and transparent review of how the Ahmaud Arbery case was handled from the outset,” Carr said in a statement. “The family, the community and the state of Georgia deserve answers, and we will work with others in law enforcement at the state and federal level to find those answers.”

With the McMichaels in jail and the case under investigation at the highest possible level, it would seem that officials have now fully satisfied the demand to Do Something stimulated by the media’s Atrocity Narrative coverage of Arbery’s death. Yet the case continues getting hourly coverage on CNN, a network with a long history of inciting racial animosity. It was CNN that endlessly replayed video of the 1991 police beating of Rodney King, which ultimately led to the 1992 Los Angeles riots that killed 63 people and caused $1 billion in damage. If the attorney who released the video is concerned that his community might be “burned to the ground,” CNN’s coverage is not helping allay those concerns. The network’s Jake Tapper on Sunday gave Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms a platform to blame President Trump for Arbery’s death. The shooting, Bottoms said, is “part of this bigger issue that we are having in this country with the rhetoric we hear coming out of the White House … many who are prone to being racist are given permission to do it in an overt way that we otherwise would not see in 2020.”

Neither Tapper nor Bottoms said anything about two other videos relevant to the Arbery case that have emerged in recent days, which appear to show that Arbery was indeed illegally trespassing at a home under construction on Satilla Drive. Trespassing is a misdemeanor and certainly doesn’t justify murder, but if the McMichaels were concerned about break-ins in their neighborhood, Arbery’s behavior on that day in February would make him a suspect. To describe him as just a “jogger,” innocently out getting some exercise when he was “hunted down and killed for no reason other than the color of his skin” (to quote Ellen DeGeneres), is an irresponsible distortion of what actually happened. Furthermore, there is an answer to the obvious question, “Why didn’t they just call 911?” They did — there were two calls immediately before the shooting. One of the 911 callers told the dispatcher that the suspected burglar had “been caught on camera a bunch before at night. It’s kind of an ongoing thing out here.”

Was this fear of a burglar prowling around Satilla Shores really “an ongoing thing” in the neighborhood? And what about that letter from the Ware County district attorney, who mentioned Ahmaud Arbery’s “mental health records” and history of criminal convictions? What kind of mental health problems did Arbery have? If the national media were interested in telling the full story of what happened in this case, shouldn’t they be following up those leads? Also, it might be worth mentioning, the neighborhood where he was shot is about two miles from the home where he lived with his mother. Of course, Arbery might have chosen this route for a jog because he enjoyed the scenery in the neighborhood near the Little Satilla River, and his interest in the home under construction might have been just curiosity. But the people who called 911 thought he was the suspect in a series of burglaries that were an “ongoing thing” in the neighborhood, and this suspicion was what provoked the shooting that the national media turned into an Atrocity Narrative.

Now that arrests have been made and federal authorities are investigating, perhaps CNN and the rest of the media outrage mob will be content to let this become just another local crime story, like the other 14,000 homicides in America that CNN manages to ignore every year. Brunswick is a beautiful little city, and it would be terrible if it went up in flames because of people like Jake Tapper, who sit safely in their network TV studios while deliberately inciting racial hated with their irresponsible Atrocity Narrative coverage.

Robert Stacy McCain
Robert Stacy McCain
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