Sunday, April 21, 2013

Did We Lose It Last Week?

No one would deny that, for America, last week sucked.  Trying to sift and strain a bombing, an attempted murder on two federal officials, and the explosion of an entire freaking factory in a small Texas town left most of us wishing mightily for a weekend filled with nothing to do but relaxation.  And, probably, some booze.

Even before Dzhokhar Tsanaev was in custody, however, the Monday-morning quarterbacking began.  If it can be called that since, to carry the analogy along a bit, the game was still on-going.  In any event, some folks just weren't happy with America and, specifically, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
While I appreciate that police work is made easier by completely immobilizing the population of a major metropolitan area, this sort of massive over-reaction to the failure to apprehend one 19-year-old amateur terrorist (I doubt Al Qaeda types and the like would consider knocking off a 7-11, shooting a security guard, and carjacking an SUV to be the smart play a few hours after having their faces spread all over the internet) is what gives the performers of what are essentially bloody publicity stunts ever-more motivation to engage in their crimes.
And Campos wasn't finished, revising and extending these thoughts at Salon:
As [Friday] drew to a close, Boston-area residents must have wondered why Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was being treated as if he was some sort of existential threat to the entire region – especially since treating him in this way caters to the grandiose fantasies that fuel what, for now, remain extremely rare outbursts of murderous pseudo-political theater, that depend for their very existence on the overreaction of the political and media establishments.
In both posts, Campos compares the Boston Marathon bombing to what has become a typical day of violence in the City of Chicago.  He wasn't alone.  On my Facebook newsfeed, I had several people compare what happened in Boston to events in Iraq (in particular), Syria, and other places experiencing high levels of domestic terrorism and violence.  The conclusion, if there was one - I was never quite sure if the people posting things like this had any point other than to show off how connected they were to the rest of the world - was that we as a people were over-reacting to an event that was, in the end, isolated, relatively rare here in the United States, and less costly in lives and damage than daily occurrences in other places even here in the United States.  In other words, "Suck it up, Boston, and deal!"

First of all, I think criticism of official action is necessary, even in the midst of a crisis.  That's the only way to figure out why decisions are made the way they are made, as well as make sure folks in charge understand they are accountable to the people.  Even if an official action is entirely appropriate, consistent both with common practice as well as applicable state and federal laws and regulations, we can only know this for sure if we are willing to ask questions.  We gain nothing by being supine and nodding our heads when officials say, "Do this," or, "Don't do that."

Second, I agree with Campos that, by Friday morning anyway, it was clear the perpetrators of the bombings on Monday posed no threat to the city of Boston or its people.  The biggest danger came from a willingness to engage in gun battles, along with the use of whatever explosive devices they were tossing at the police.  Bullets have a habit of missing their intended target; folks in New York City not too long ago learned that lesson when, during a shoot-out between a criminal suspect and police, eleven civilians were injured by "stray" bullets (as if there was some kind of "bullet fence" they sneaked over or under, escaping out to the wild screaming, "I'm free!").

Finally, I also agree that, after taking a couple deep breaths, most of the rest of the country should have been able to consider the events in Boston, in West, TX, and the mailed ricin letters with a bit more perspective.  A perspective that included measuring the event itself both against the terrible toll violence takes in other cities here in the United States and around the world, as well as whatever possible motivations the perpetrators might have had for carrying out the bombing.

That, however, is the extent of my agreement with Campos.  First of all, the claim that terrorism is "political theater" and thus we give terrorists what they want when we pay attention to terrorist acts, misses a couple important things.  While true enough as far as it goes, we should also be aware that, in this instance, authorities weren't clear who had committed the bombings or why.  No one took responsibility for them.  None of the usual suspects stood up and said, "I did it and here's why."  Which could lead some to suspect it wasn't "terrorism" of the usual sort.  Also, a terrorist act is designed to kill, maim, and destroy.  Finally, precisely because they are such rare occurrences, they are bound to attract attention in and for themselves.

Despite CNN jumping the gun and announcing an arrest on Wednesday, while authorities probably had narrowed the suspect list substantially by then, they had not given the public the information on who probable suspect or suspects might be.  Indeed, that didn't come until the next day, at which point it appears - and let me stress "appears" - the Tsarnaev brothers panicked and bolted.  Prior to then, the public wasn't sure if the perpetrators were foreign or domestic; we didn't know what motivated them, if anything other than  a desire to kill and destroy; we had no idea if those responsible were still in the Boston area. Until the Tzarnaev brothers were offered up to the public as suspects, the public - and officials, too - had no idea how we could begin to understand the events in Boston on Monday.  Context is everything.  With faces and names, officials could begin to piece together possible reasons for the bombing.

By Friday morning, a couple things were clear enough.  Whatever their motivations, the Tsarnaev brothers were continuing to demonstrate a callous disregard for their own lives and the lives of others.  They killed an MIT police officer.  They shot it out with police officers in Watertown.  Tamerlan Tsarnaev rushed police officers, shooting and detonating an explosive device attached to his body so his brother could get away, but also to continue to kill and/or wound police.  Even though Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appears to have gone to ground, wounded either during the early Friday morning firefight or subsequently, no one knew for sure if that was what happened.

Was Boston "locked down", as we heard over and over?  The transit system, run by a publicly-owned and operated corporation, was closed.  Other than that, officials did not "order" people in and around Boston and its suburbs to stay inside.  They suggested it and most Boston residents, Cambridge residents, and those in surrounding communities were willing enough to comply; for those folks, it had been a rough week, and getting an extra day off plus a long weekend probably seemed a good thing, all things considered.  While I doubt anyone even up to and including the Governor of Massachusetts imagined the Tzarnaevs were "an existential threat" to the city and suburbs, it was certainly clear enough they posed a danger and hazard, willing to continue killing people in an effort to evade authorities.  Neither the Boston Bruins or Red Sox games were postponed by outside authorities; rather, the owners and management decided, independently and based on common sense that turn-out would be low, it might be better to put the games off until a later date.

Did authorities over-react?  That's a harder call.  I think some things they did were excessive.  The city of Boston could have been open for business as usual on Friday.  While having an increased police presence in and around the Watertown area was most definitely necessary, parading around in armored vehicles, having sniper points set up around town, was probably a bit much (although, to be fair, snipers do have the training and ability to look and see things that others might miss; if nothing else they can serve as eyes that see further and clearer than some).

As for comparing the actual violence and its toll to events in other cities both here and abroad, well, that kind of makes me angry.  For one thing, the events in Boston and the on-going violence in Chicago - used twice by Paul Campos to try and shame people in to carrying on about the bombings - are completely different types of events.  Let me repeat myself: Until late Thursday/early Friday, no one really knew who had set the bombs or why.  Figuring it all out was necessary precisely because, if the perpetrators were linked to international terrorism, that might well necessitate a response from the federal government beyond using law enforcement.

Chicago is currently undergoing a long-term series of gang-related murders.  I suppose it is at least theoretically possible Mayor Rahm Emmanuel could use tactics similar to those used in Massachusetts, i.e., calling out massive amounts of heavily armed and armored paramilitary police units to sweep through areas of the city where the violence is worst, round up people involved in gang activity, and let the chips fall where the courts toss them once it is over.  Hell, I'm figuring most of the people living in those areas might welcome it.  All the same, it is both impractical, unworkable - we're talking potentially hundreds of criminal defendants in Chicago as opposed to two in Boston - and, most important of all, not touching the underlying causes (poverty, the lucrative nature of criminal activity exploited by the Chicago gangs, racism, the sense that the gangs provide structure to areas of the city officials have neglected far too long) of events in the Windy City.

In other words, in this case with this example, it is really quite impossible to compare the events using simple numbers.

Which doesn't mean that we can't now focus on the endemic violence in Chicago, say, or the death toll from unregulated and criminally negligent corporate activities that also take a toll on life and health and property, such as occurred in West, TX.  In a suburb of Little Rock, AR, the press is still barred from the scene of a massive oil pipeline rupture that may well render that suburb uninhabitable.  Stories that seem far away and, well, boring, such as the expanding "dead zones" in the world's oceans; the collapse of commercial fisheries that are creating both economic chaos as well as potential shortages of food; the toll global warming is taking on agriculture both here in the United States and around the world, again creating both economic hardship as well as threatening food supplies (and the insurance industry is pressing Congress to get busy on climate change legislation precisely because they understand how much they stand to lose in payouts due to global warming damage); all these and so much more have far more potential impact on all our lives than a couple stupid, scared kids or some nutty Elvis impersonator sending letters that had no hope of reaching their intended target (while certainly still threatening the lives of the people down the line who came in contact with them).

This last, however, is not so much an indictment of public officialdom as it is an indictment of our news gathering and disseminating bodies.  American broadcast journalism crashed and burned in a big way this past week; it wasn't helped all that much by internet sights that kept banging the drum that the people responsible were "dark-skinned", which should tell people all they need to know not about the perpetrators as much as the websites and the people who run them.  It would be nice if we the people relied for our news not so much on sources either beholden to a particular political agenda or on sensationalism to drive ratings but rather on news sources that were interested in providing real news, up to and including looking in a camera and saying, "Well, we don't have anything new, so we're going to tell you some other stuff that's going on."  That would demonstrate both responsibility and balance on the part of journalists; by and large, the events of this week demonstrated our ongoing need for real journalism rather than TV personalities and pretenders on the internet.  The best of these were - despite the New York Post - print media, especially the Boston Globe.  Other print outlets were doing good work making sure the stories stuck to facts, leaving speculation to John King and Wolf Blitzer at CNN and Jim Hoft and Michelle Malkin on the internet.

Did we "lose it" this week?  Some of us did, I think.  I think officials on the ground in and around Boston should be given some - not a lot but some - slack and benefit of the doubt, while still being willing to answer some tough questions about actions and decisions.  While this was a tough week for all of us, I think after a weekend to release some of the tension, it might not be a bad idea if, on Monday morning, we jumped right in and started asking some tough questions about all sorts of things, whether it's sensational stuff like bombs exploding or really pedestrian stuff like zoning laws and community planning.  Maybe, too, we can start turning off the 24/7 news channels and start reading our news again.  Precisely because print media doesn't have to "be first on the air" with information and news, they can take a bit more time to get stories not only right, but get the right stories.

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