A fire ignited in the 856-year-old Notre Dame cathedral on Monday, blazing through the twilight hours and into the night. Millions watched in horror — on television, online, on the streets and bridges of Paris — as the historic building's roof burned and its spire collapsed. For many, this tragedy was met with reverence.
Unfortunately, it didn't take long for opportunistic attention-seekers to leverage the moment for their own nihilistic purposes. We now have a specific script that takes over whenever tragedy occurs, and the Notre Dame fire offered a fresh chance for cultural warriors in America and abroad to play their assigned roles, to dreary effect.
It started with the conspiracy theorists.
It appears the fire was an accident, the product of age and neglect. But within minutes, conspiracy theorists sprang into action. Fox News interviewed a "French official" who proclaimed the conflagration to be "the French 9/11." That "official" turned out to be a well-known conspiracy theorist. Fox cut him off quickly, to the network's credit, but it was far from the only case of rumor-mongering. By Monday evening, BuzzFeed News had catalogued eight separate hoaxes that spread quickly on social media. Some were relatively harmless — people posting old pictures of the wrong cathedral — but there were plenty of false reports that blamed Muslims, either for causing the fire or for celebrating its destructive results. Forward noted anti-Semitic posts, as well.
Online gatekeepers actually made the problem worse: YouTube's algorithms pointed viewers seeking information about the fire to videos about 9/11 conspiracies.
The Notre Dame fire was apparently also the perfect opportunity to promote various dubious pet causes. White nationalists like Richard Spencer had their say, as did alt-righters like Mike Cernovich. So did more mainstream pundits: religious folks like Rod Dreher, alarmed by secularization, self-proclaimed defenders of "western civilization" like Ben Shapiro and their antagonists like Josh Marshall. One high-profile Trump impeachment enthusiast even got in on the act:
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) politicizes the Notre Dame Cathedral fire to attack President Donald Trump, says: "What he has done to the Constitution and the rule of law is as bad as that fire did to Notre Dame" pic.twitter.com/HsjXIUdD43
— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) April 16, 2019
President Trump himself offered some befuddling advice on how firefighters should do their job.
So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 15, 2019
Trump's idea, of course, likely would've resulted in additional damage to the cathedral. The best you can say about the president's comment, on this occasion, is that he really was trying to solve a pressing problem. He seemed to actually mean well. But firefighting is certainly not his expertise, and the construction of Trump Tower is considerably different from a cathedral built nearly a millennium ago. The best thing a president can do in such situations — especially when they're occurring in another nation, across an ocean — is to offer sincere good wishes, plus any support that's needed, then sit back and be quiet.
Indeed, the occasion of the Notre Dame fire called for reverence; instead, it was reduced to yet another talking point in our often-petty arguments. This is more than shameful: It's tedious. (Here, I offer a mea culpa: I was not completely immune to the temptation to fight. I should've done better. My colleague Matthew Walther offered a much better, more faithful elegy.)
In such moments, it's useful to remember that the online world — Twitter in particular — is not the real world. The fights that consume so many of us when we sit in front of our computers or tap away on our phones can still have resonance, but there's other stuff out there, too: faith and friendship, parenting and service, all manner of things that cause joy and sadness.
The best response to Monday's fire did not take place online, but outside the cathedral itself. As evening set in and the flames still glowed from inside the building, some of the faithful gathered to sing.
— ABC News (@ABC) April 15, 2019
It was beautiful and sacred, and it was truly the best way to honor an iconic structure that means so much to so many.