For a brief moment last week, much of the organized Jewish world was in a frenzy, furiously checking text messages and social media feeds for information on what appeared to be another terror attack on Jewish institutions. Spurred to near hysteria by tweets and retweets about what was supposedly happening in Baltimore, people from New York to Florida thought that not only was a synagogue targeted, but that more than a half dozen schools and other Jewish institutions had received similar packages the same day containing an unknown substance that had felled the two people at the Baltimore synagogue who opened it.
As it turns out, no one received any packages. After someone opened a hand-addressed letter with no return address — similar to other envelopes received at various Jewish institutions several days before, all bearing a Christmas stamp and a Dallas, Texas, postmark — two people at Beth El Congregation in Pikesville felt ill. The letter spoke about the holiday season and the saving grace of a certain non-Jewish religion’s deity. Putting two and two together, someone alerted authorities, who dispatched paramedics and a hazmat crew. The people feeling sick required no treatment and no suspicious substance was found.
For hours afterward, however, alert messages and ominous tweets continued to be sent to Jewish communities throughout the United States, all warning of multiple attacks in and around Baltimore. This despite the fact that security officials all knew that the “danger” had passed, and that the situation wasn’t a danger to begin with.
Let’s be clear: When they felt sick, the people at Beth El did the right thing. It was not unreasonable for them to be suspicious, especially since sending anthrax by mail is a known tactic of certain terrorists. That we’re only two months from the largest anti-Semitic attack in the United States only adds to an understandable heightened sense of guardedness and concern.
But whereas those affected had every right to alert the authorities, those responsible for whipping up a mass hysteria — including a local Jewish security organization, as well as several Jewish and non-Jewish media outlets — have no excuse. While we can understand the impulse to get a story out quickly, responsible journalism also demands verification of the truth of a matter, as well as the exercise of restraint — to protect against the careless rebroadcast of a thinly-sourced communique with the abandon of circulating an old-time chain letter.
The danger of careless dissemination lies not only in needlessly worrying people, but also in possibly anesthetizing recipients to when something dangerous is actually happening. There’s nothing suspicious about Christians being Christians, especially this time of year. And we have enough real issues and concerns regarding our community’s safety and security with which we have to deal without having to invent new ones.
So, as we prepare for the new year, let us all commit to think a little more before hitting send.