Smearing a victim to make you feel better

As everyone knows by now, a man was dragged off of a United Airlines flight by police yesterday and was injured in the process. The reason: United wanted to place a couple of its employees on the flight and kick off paying passengers to do it. I wasn’t aware that a private business had the right to manhandle you when they messed up, but here we are. 

While the condemnation of United over this event has been considerable, today the media has decided that the victim of this act of excessive force is the one owed scrutiny.

From the Louisville Courier-Journal:

From a news anchor at WJLA TV in Washington D.C.:

From the gossip site TMZ

Some of this might’ve been relevant if anything Dr. Dao did contributed to yesterday’s incident. If he had been an unruly passenger or if he had assaulted someone or if he had broken some law. Looking at the past of someone who commits a transgression is often instructive and illuminating. It makes sense to do that sometimes.

But, of course, Dao committed no transgression here. He was roughed up in the name of bad corporate policy made worse by it being carried out incompetently. His past is of no consequence or relevance to what happened yesterday. So why is the media digging into it so eagerly?

Part of it is mere sensationalism. The United story has captured the attention of the nation and anything that can keep it going is in the best interests of certain segments of the media. If it bleeds, it leads, and Dao bled. If there’s sex or drugs or a crime involved, all the better. One may have to dig years into Dao’s past to find that, and it may not have anything to do with the news story itself, but beggars can’t be choosers as they chase ratings and page views, so whatever dirt anyone can find on the guy is, apparently, fair game. This sort of muckraking is a story as old as newspapers themselves.  

There’s a deeper motivation at work here, however. It may be an unconscious motive on the part of any one member of the media pushing this kind of smear job, but it’s a motive aimed at giving us something we, as a society, crave in these sorts of situations. The need to believe that a person who had something bad happen to him had it coming to him. And that, in turn, nothing bad like this could ever happen to us. 

In the past 24 hours I’ve seen countless people — otherwise disinterested individuals, — rush to United’s defense to talk about the fine print on tickets or the need to overbook flights or how, in general, people forfeit their rights once they get on a plane. People coming, almost reflexively, to the defense of authority, lest anyone suggest that authority was abused. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t feel comfortable challenging the status quo and take much greater comfort in defending it, this line of reasoning is tailor made for you. 

Not everyone is like that, of course. Some people are super upset with what United did regardless of the underlying policy but are desperate to minimize the ugliness of the incident because confronting ugliness is not a pleasant thing for many. To that end we see the media dig into Dao’s past which will, almost certainly, result in Dao being considered “controversial” or worse by the public, causing them to see his ejection from the United plane in a more ambiguous, less ugly light. “Sure, he was roughed up,” they’ll say, “but he’s no angel.” 

It’s all about people wanting to feel better about the incident. To make them believe that it was not as arbitrary as it seemed. To make them think this was a special case, in which the victim was partially to blame. To make them less likely to question how and why it happened. To make them less likely to ask themselves whether they have ever done something, actively or passively, to enable this particular sort of horror. If a truly innocent man has something terrible happen to him, it shakes our faith in the system. If a sketchy individual with a sordid past does, well, everything is just fine. And maybe he even had it coming.

We all sleep better if we think the world is just. The world is more just if the people who do bad things have bad things happen to them and the people who have bad things happen to them turn out to be bad. We all want to sleep better, so sometimes we’ll work extra hard to make sure that state of affairs exists.

Even if we have to delude ourselves into believing it does. Even if we have to smear a victim to make it so. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.