Caring about the Ryan Lochte controversy and Omran Daqneesh isn't a zero sum game
On Thursday, two stories dominated the Western news cycle.
One was the viral footage of Omran Daqneesh, a bloody, dust-covered 5-year old Syrian boy who had just been pulled from the rubble of an Aleppo airstrike.
The other was about U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, who, along with three other members of the United States Olympic swim team, had been accused by the Brazilian government of fabricating a story of an armed robbery.
For some people, the moral imperative to signal-boost the story of Daqneesh and downplay the Lochte debacle was obvious.
"I personally cannot bring myself to give two shits about Ryan Lochte's gas station fight, and this is why," tweeted model and Twitter heavyweight Chrissy Teigen, alongside a New York Times link to the Daqneesh story.
Teigen was not alone:
It's easy to see how a wholly emotional reading of the two conflicts could render a higher prioritization of the small, dust-covered boy whose life in Aleppo is in constant peril. But "Lochtegate" — as it has become known on social media — has lit a match to a roiling mass of longstanding geopolitical friction, and we really shouldn't ignore that either.
As Brian Winter, the vice president for policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas, put it to the New York Times, the incident, "has tapped into one of Brazilians' biggest pet peeves — gringos who treat their country like a third-rate spring break destination where you can lie to the cops and get away with it."
By standing on a world stage and loudly attesting to a robbery that Brazilian officials have roundly denied ever happened in the first place, Lochte and his American teammates, Jimmy Feigen, Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz, have awoken the nationalism of a country that has gone to great lengths during these Olympic Games to transcend its international reputation as a bastion of crime and vice.
"We saw our city stained by a fantastical version," Fernando Veloso, the Civil Police chief for the state of Rio de Janeiro, told the Times of Lochte's account of what had happened.
And the transgressions of Lochte and co. only scratch the surface. American media's wincing coverage of the lead-up to the start of the Olympics ("The Disaster Olympics," New York magazine declared; "Brazil's Olympic Catastrophe," said the New York Times) showed a culture that had counted Rio out before the games had even begun.
In an apology released Friday, Lochte stuck to his story, explaining that it is "traumatic to be out late in a foreign country with your friends — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you."
But the apology doesn't do much to repair the damage inflicted upon a country that is, as David Zirin wrote in The Nation, "sick and tired of being the punching bag, the laughing stock, and the spittoon of debauchery of the Western world."
The stories of Omran Daqneesh and Ryan Lochte do not exist on some spectrum where it becomes necessary to emotionally prioritize one in favor of the other. One is a tragedy, one is a damn shame, and both deserve our attention.