Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Existential Threats

It's only Wednesday in the week after a series of events that, coming within close proximity to one another, tried our emotional ability to comprehend.  A bombing in Boston; letters laced with poison sent to state and federal officials, including the President; a fertilizer plant exploding, the explosion large enough to register on seismographs as a small earthquake; the denouement in Boston that included killing a police officer, a shoot-out, and massive manhunt.

I'll leave to others to join in the shouting back and forth about whether or not Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be treated as an enemy combatant.  Obviously, I do not believe he should for one simple reason: since the legislation defining who is and is not an enemy combatant explicitly exempts American citizens operating on American soil, it seems it would be a violation of the law for the Justice Department to make that declaration.

Which isn't stopping perennial bed-wetters John McCain and Lindsay Graham - the Senators from the Sunday Talk Show Green Rooms - from insisting over and over again that the law Graham wrote should be ignored.  What's been most interesting, in particular, is McCain carrying on about what we don't know about  Tsarnaev.  It's interesting because on the one hand he is quite right; on the other hand it has nothing to do with the case against Tsarnaev.  What we have, and have had since Friday, is an abundance of information specifically related to the potential legal case against him.

I'm fascinated by the show on the right both in the public and in Congress.  Somehow, the whole idea of "terrorism" has become limited not so much to a method of political violence as to who perpetrates the violence.  Thus, for instance, the harassment, bombing and arson campaign, and occasional murder of abortion doctors is not, for those on the right, a case of terrorism.  Dr. George Tiller's murderer, who just a couple weeks back was interviewed in prison, gleefully talking about the threats Tiller's replacement has received, is a good example of a terrorist.

As is Eric Rudolph who bombed abortion clinics, a gay bar, and then the Atlanta Olympic Games.  While hiding from authorities, this perpetrator and lover of political violence was supported by locals as he hid in the foothills of North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains; apparently some terrorists are just more likable than others.

During the online "search" for the bombers last week, it should hardly surprise anyone that sites on the right kept insisting they "found" a "suspect" and it turned out to be someone with dark skin.  That is the face of fear in America, the example of terrorists.  As Rick Perlstein writes in The Nation:
Instead, the nation has surrendered to an inherently right-wing idea, one that I've written of here in the context of the gun control debate: the notion that the world is easily parsed into god guys and bad guys, never the twain should meet—and the corollary notion, which I've also written about recently, that once the world has been so divided, vanquishing the bad guys licenses any procedural abuse.
This is also why Rush Limbaugh can compare Tsarnaev to Trayvon Martin and his audience understands exactly what he's talking about.  Being Muslim, Tsarnaev is an other, some strange being different from Americans, just as Trayvon Martin, being African-American, was different, not belonging in the neighborhood in to which he'd wandered, posing a threat merely by his presence.

Which leads me to the other case of mass death last week.  Oddly enough, the explosion at the West, TX fertilizer plant isn't getting the kind of traction one would think such a story would, beyond obvious and much-deserved praise for the firefighters and others who died doing their duty.  Death in the workplace is relatively common; death by terrorists extremely rare.  There is abundant evidence the Texas plant was in violation of many federal laws and reporting regulations, and worked feverishly to get rid of those same regulations they devoutly ignored.  Rather than a "tragic accident" - which hints at unpredictability; uniqueness; and finally something to mourn and then pass over - the explosion in Texas is a case study in industrial malfeasance, a kind of policy-and-procedure manual in ignoring safety regulations in pursuit of profit.

The news media is enamored of the Boston bombing story and its Byzantine intricacies because the perpetrators seem exotic, and the event itself was so dramatic.  The events in Texas are droll, involving violations of arcane codes and regulations as well as examination of how well, or even if, the town of West and the surrounding county controlled residential growth around an industrial site that posed an inherent risk. The latter story, for all its dullness, is being played out in communities around the country.  The former story offers an opportunity to delve in to exotic locales, the psychology of two young men, the current politics of immigration reform; in other words, to make of this event a Movie Of The Week without having to pay any actors.

Oddly enough, the real existential threats aren't Chechen refugees radicalized in no small part because of the constant clamor of anti-Muslim rhetoric of some Americans.  No, the real existential threats are the things we miss because they're boring.  Why aren't John McCain and Lindsay Graham insisting the owners and operators of the fertilizer plant be treated as enemy combatants?

Because they all look the same.

Virtual Tin Cup

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