Opinion

The Notre Dame fire and the power of silent reverence

The only good response to this tragedy was quiet reflection. Unfortunately, culture warriors had other plans.

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:

President Trump himself offered some befuddling advice on how firefighters should do their job.

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.

It was beautiful and sacred, and it was truly the best way to honor an iconic structure that means so much to so many.

More From...

Picture of Joel MathisJoel Mathis
Read All
What Chris Cuomo's quick apology means
Chris Cuomo.
Talking Points

What Chris Cuomo's quick apology means

Trump's bizarre demand for a Texas election audit
Trump in Texas
Talking Points

Trump's bizarre demand for a Texas election audit

Why the Supreme Court's popularity suddenly matters
A broken gavel.
Talking Points

Why the Supreme Court's popularity suddenly matters

Why Democrats own the debt ceiling debacle
A donkey.
Talking Points

Why Democrats own the debt ceiling debacle

Recommended

Why thousands of Haitians arrived in Texas on Mexican Independence Day
Haitian migrants at southern border
Haitian migrants

Why thousands of Haitians arrived in Texas on Mexican Independence Day

Taliban official says executions will return
A Taliban official in front of a flag.
today's taliban

Taliban official says executions will return

DHS says it 'is not and will not send' Haitian migrants to Guantanamo Bay
Haitian migrants at southern border
Haitian migrants

DHS says it 'is not and will not send' Haitian migrants to Guantanamo Bay

Kabul's holdover mayor says he finds Taliban 'more tolerant'
Taliban fighters.
afghanistan

Kabul's holdover mayor says he finds Taliban 'more tolerant'

Most Popular

Jimmy Fallon and Nicole Kidman almost make it through interview without awkwardness
Jimmy Fallon and Nicole Kidman
Last Night on Late Night

Jimmy Fallon and Nicole Kidman almost make it through interview without awkwardness

7 cartoons about America's vaccine fights
Editorial Cartoon.
Feature

7 cartoons about America's vaccine fights

Democrats are governing like Republicans
A donkey.
Picture of W. James Antle IIIW. James Antle III

Democrats are governing like Republicans