Friday, December 2, 2011

Tainted by wackos

Negative clichés and stereotypes are cheap and easy. Often, they are damaging. Sometimes, they are just plain wrong.

For example, a short time after an Idaho Falls man was arrested for shooting at the White House, New York Times reporter William Yardley wrote the following paragraph: "That a religious extremist from a small town in Idaho would try to kill a black Democratic president might seem like cinematic stock. The state has long been stereotyped as violently antigovernment and racist. Remember the white supremacists of Hayden Lake? Remember Ruby Ridge? But many people here in Idaho Falls say the cliché is empty this time."

"Empty" is correct even though the emptiness of the stereotype didn't stop the newspaper from reaching back and allowing the story to tie debacles from 20 years ago and earlier to the events of today. Later stories noted that the shooter may be mentally ill, something that will be determined as his case works its way through the criminal justice system.

Real data contradict the violent and racist stereotypes that others have repeatedly pinned on Idaho.

For example, in 2009, U.S. Census data showed that only eight states had lower rates of violent crime than Idaho. The newspaper's home state of New York ranked in the middle. Violent crime in the District of Columbia eclipsed every state.

Idaho also had significantly fewer hate crimes than most other states in 2010 and a lower rate per 100,000 population than 75 percent of other states and the District of Columbia. And, by the way, the white supremacists who were eventually run out of northern Idaho came from other states.

It's human nature to try to find reasons for the behavior of others who commit violent acts. But to conclude that Idaho is violent and racist because a crackpot group built a compound here years ago is like concluding that New York state is populated mostly by mobsters.

In this age of instantaneous news, it's nearly always premature to paint an entire state as culturally responsible for the criminal acts of a mentally ill man by virtue of a misplaced and factually unsubstantiated stereotype.

Allegations of violence and racism make good people cringe. They also leave people speechless in their own defense because of the awful question they pose: Are we really violent and racist?

Though anomalies may occur, the overwhelming data say Idaho is neither.

The Idaho Falls shooter, Oscar Ramiro Ortega Hernandez, is clearly a troubled individual, but his personal demons shouldn't taint the reputation of Idaho, which is populated by largely law-abiding and decent people.

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