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Teresa Crawford, AP
Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson speaks during a press conference at CPD headquarters, Thursday, Feb. 21, in Chicago, after actor Jussie Smollett turned himself in on charges of disorderly conduct and filing a false police report. The "Empire" staged a racist and homophobic attack because he was unhappy about his salary and wanted to promote his career, Johnson said Thursday.

First, a host of people were quick to take to social media to show support and express outrage when actor Jussie Smollett claimed he had been assaulted by two men who shouted racial and homophobic slurs, struck him and poured some chemical on him. That list included the majority of the Democratic presidential candidates, scores of members of Congress and even the president himself. They seemed so sure of the facts.

Then, when police said their investigation showed something quite different, that Smollett allegedly made the whole thing up and paid two men to fake the assault, all as part of an elaborate scheme to get himself a pay raise on the show “Empire,” social media turned. Again, so many people seemed so sure.

As we have said before, instant certainty is the bane of this generation. It is a barrier to trust and the enemy of truth. Worse, it seems unnaturally disposed to celebrity worship at the expense of less well-known innocent victims.

Chicago’s police superintendent Eddie T. Johnson said it well at a Thursday press conference: “I just wish that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention.” Johnson said his department had also been called out when it was revealed that Smollett's story had changed and was becoming increasingly suspicious.

If Smollett is guilty, as police charge, then instant certainty must have been part of the equation, an assumption upon which his plot depended. The details of the alleged assault, especially his attackers’ purported outward support for President Donald Trump, would have been designed to elicit instant knee-jerk reactions from a politically polarized nation.

On Thursday prosecutors laid out a meticulously documented mountain of evidence that has a new cadre of analysts certain they know both the truth and what the outcome of the case will be. Smollett, who surrendered to police, is sticking to his story and has been released on bond. Even in the wake of evidence revealed, his attorneys were actually correct when they reminded everyone that Smollett enjoys the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise in court.

That is a presumption lightly regarded by the American public throughout history. For instance, nearly 127 years after her parents were murdered, Lizzie Borden probably still is considered guilty by many who know the story of the legendary crime. But she was acquitted in court, and yet she lived many years being ostracized in her hometown.

Instant certainty, then, is not peculiar to this generation. But today’s instant communication makes it particularly harmful.

On the same day the instant certainty of a hate crime against Smollett began to unravel, Nick Sandmann of Covington Catholic High School filed a $250 million lawsuit against The Washington Post for the damage its instant certainty about his moment with a tribal elder on the National Mall caused him.

And yet we must make an important distinction. Instant certainty is not the same as the need to give purported victims the benefit of all doubts.

If Chicago police are proven correct, Smollett’s case will have done a great disservice to legitimate victims of assaults and hate crimes everywhere. Victims ought to be taken seriously. They need to be confident that their claims will be thoroughly investigated, and that perpetrators will be brought to justice.

42 comments on this story

Filing a false police report is a serious crime that harms public trust. The monetary cost to taxpayers is significant but pales in comparison to the crisis of trust it perpetuates in society. Chicago police used considerable resources and over a dozen detectives to investigate this case. Smollett's actions may cause real victims to become double victims, if they are now perceived as less than credible. If the case against Smollett is proven, the consequences should be stiff.

For the American people, however, the lesson should be to reserve judgment. All may not be as it seems. The corrosive effects of instant certainty are too powerful to wield as indiscriminately as people are wont.