The recent defeat of gun buyers’ background check legislation in the Senate—legislation backed by an almost unimaginable 90% of the American public—has been taken as a somber day in the history of American democracy. We’ve been having a lot of such somber days of late. In fact, one can well argue we’ve not only reached the point where not only does the will of the American people has almost no bearing on governance, but most of our opinion-makers see little reason why it should have.
No one can deny there is an increasing disparity between what the American public says it wants, and what the political class feel they should even have to talk about. At the height of the health reform debate in 2009, polls suggested that as many as two thirds of Americans would have preferred a Canadian style single-payer health plan, which could have been achieved fairly simply by expanding existing programs like Medicare. In Washington, and in the national media, it was not even seen as worthy of debate. On the other side, overwhelming majorities even of Republicans, let alone Democrats, make clear the last thing we should be talking about is cutting social security benefits, yet we have a President and political class that—despite the lack of any immediate crisis —seem almost obsessively determined to figure out an excuse to do so.
On one level we all know why this happens. Lobbyists for powerful moneyed interests control the terms of debate. Any proposal would be strongly opposed by, say, the Gun Lobby, or the Health Insurance Lobby, is simply not considered serious, no matter how much popular support it has. But what’s really startling is the indifference with which this situation is greeted by America’s talking classes, even those who represent themselves as (and in many cases at least, actually do sincerely see themselves to be) the guardians of America’s democratic traditions. Each new outrage is greeted with at best a minor flurry of concern, usually followed by some wistful complaints about the “dysfunctional culture” in Washington—complaints which, if they lead to anything, lead only to pleas for politicians to stop fighting and build a “pragmatic,” “centrist” consensus—that is, to effectively do away with any remaining difference between the two parties and eliminate popular input into politics entirely.
Even fundamental structural issues are shrugged away. Politicians and journalists who regularly hold out American democracy as a beacon to the world never seem to reflect on what the world is supposed to make of the fact that, say, 2/3 of the American public who don’t happen to live in swing states effectively have no say in who gets to be the President, or that we can have House elections, as we did in 2012, where a majority of voters can choose candidates from one party and watch the other party win the election anyway.
One can only conclude that for most of our official opinion-makers, the word “democracy” no longer has anything, really, to do with popular will. It refers to a structure of authority. “Democracy” for them means that elaborate architecture of checks and balances created by the Framers of the Constitution, the fact that elections, appointments, congressional votes and judicial and executive decisions take place according to established laws, bylaws, traditions, and procedures. It means following the rules laid down by the Founding Fathers and their later, duly authorized, interpreters. Hence in the event of a crisis, the press feels that it’s first loyalty is not to what the public wants, or even really to the facts, but above all, to maintaining public faith in the legitimacy of what they consider “democratic institutions.” This came out very clearly during the dispute over the Bush-Gore election of 2000. No one contested that Gore was the choice of the majority of American voters. It was not at all clear that Bush was the choice of the majority of Florida voters (and as it later turned out, he was not.) But after a Supreme Court decision in which a majority of justices barely disguised the fact that they were intervening to stop the ballot-counting on the basis of their own personal political preferences, the media instantly declared the issue over—many openly admitting that they felt pointing out that the Court had effectively engaged in a judicial coup would be irresponsible, since it would undermine popular faith in the integrity of “democratic institutions.”
DEMOCRACY WAS NEVER A GIFT: WE TOOK IT
All nations, all societies, have their founding myths. Back in the 18th century, Enlightenment thinkers tended to assume that nations were originally created by great lawgivers, men like Solon or Lycurgus, who created their constitutions, and thus, that the “spirit of the laws” shaped what kind of people their inhabitants were ultimately to become. John Adams, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson were raised on such ideas. It seems unlikely that there’s anywhere this really happened. But here in the United States, they tried to put theory into practice; and so we still insist that “democracy” was something given us by great lawgivers, that we are “a nation of laws and not of men,” and that this institutional structure has been the basis of our democratic spirit, and our rights and freedoms, ever since.
But there’s a basic problem here. Nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or Constitution does it say anything about the United States being a democracy. In fact, men like Adams, Madison, and even Jefferson were staunchly opposed to democracy, which they defined as “the powers of government exercised by the people”—whether directly through popular assemblies, or by extension, through the direct election of representatives closely bound to the popular will. Most were also quite explicit about their reasons. How could we possibly have majority rule, wrote John Adams, in a country where only one or two million people own any significant amount of property, and 9 million do not? It could only led to the cancellation of debts and expropriation of the wealthy. One need only glance at the opening remarks of the Constitutional Convention of 1789, delivered by George Washington protégé Edmund Randolph, then Governor of Virginia, to get a sense of why they felt that system of checks and balances needed to be created:
Our chief danger arises from the democratic parts of our constitutions. It is a maxim which I hold incontrovertible, that the powers of government exercised by the people swallows up the other branches. None of the constitutions have provided sufficient checks against the democracy. The feeble Senate of Virginia is a phantom. Maryland has a more powerful senate, but the late distractions in that State, have discovered that it is not powerful enough. The check established in the constitution of New York and Massachusetts is yet a stronger barrier against democracy, but they all seem insufficient.
Instead of the democracy of ancient Athens, the new state was to be a Republic, modeled on Rome, which, the founders (being good classical scholars) argued had the perfect balance between monarchy (the President was to be an elected monarch), the oligarchic (the Senate, which was to be composed of wealthy landholders), and a Congress with carefully limited democratic powers—largely, on the principle of “no taxation without representation” to handle finance. True power, they argued, would be held by a “natural aristocracy” of educated lawyers, drawn from the propertied classes, with the wealth and leisure to separate themselves from the battling interests of the masses and think about the greater good.
At that time, in fact, the word “democracy” was used—by politicians, at least—largely as a term of abuse, in fact almost interchangeably with “anarchy” or “mob rule.” A few radicals did sometimes call themselves “democrats,” but mainly for shock value, in much the same later radicals would call themselves “anarchists” or “queers.” But over time more and more did. By the 1830s, Andrew Jackson started calling himself a “democrat” when running for office, and won, and before the decade was out, everyone was using the term. The Republican structure that was created to prevent what Washington once called “the horrors of democracy” was itself relabeled “democracy” and we have been calling the system that ever since.
The obvious question is: Why did a one-time term of abuse like “democracy” had such appeal to American farmers and mechanics that eventually, even politicians eventually had to start using it? And what did it mean to them? The entire story has yet to be told. But clearly, it had something to do with that “democratic spirit” later celebrated by Tocqueville and Whitman, an ideal of individual equality, freedom, and at least the aspiration for forms popular self-governance that was rarely fully realized, or even, completely articulated. It was the driving force behind the revolution itself, with its great popular assemblies and mobilizations, and it led to an endless series of popular movements—in the early days of the republic, even outright uprisings—that frequently forced the political classes’ hand.
Insofar as we have democratic elements in our system—and these do exist—they can almost invariably be traced to here. Normally, when we think of the Constitution as the embodiment of democratic freedoms, we think above all of the Bill of Rights. But the framers never had any intention of placing such a list in the text of the constitution; it was just that, faced with the simultaneous mobilization of anti-Federalist politicians and radicals demanding debt relief, they were finally realized they would never be able to ratify the document without it. Rights to freedom of the press, speech, and assembly were won through those very means (with a fear of outright insurrection lingering in the background.) At the time, it’s pretty clear probably a majority of those that signed the document didn’t have the slightest intention of honoring those commitments (nine years later, most of the same men signed the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798, rendering “false, scandalous and malicious” criticisms of the new government punishable by law), but gradually, popular embrace of those principles forced the politicians to act as they were the very basis of the American ideal.
The story was to repeat time after time, every time democratic freedoms expanded: whether with the expansion of the franchise, suffrage, abolition, civil rights… None were granted by the benevolence of law-givers. They were won, usually against fierce opposition from the political establishment, usually beginning with the vision of stubborn groups of idealists acting in conscious defiance of the law (the phrase “civil disobedience,” after all, was first coined in America), gradually winning broad popular support or moral consensus and finally forcing the politicians, however reluctantly, to incorporate those new moral understandings into the constitutional order—at least to some extent.
For most of American history, one could make a case that as a result, even if democracy remained an aspiration, there was a broad movement in its direction. The beginnings of the Cold War marked a major push-back in the other direction and after the ‘60s, progress basically ground to a halt.
THE CURSE OF THE PROFESSIONAL-MANAGERIAL CLASS
President Obama likes to evoke the language and gestures of popular mobilization. But it’s all hollow theater. In reality, the very fact that he can do so marks the completion of the work begun by Clinton of purging the Democratic Party from any remaining remnants of movement politics: the languages and gestures have now been so thoroughly severed from the movement politics that first created them, that they can simply be deployed as a marketing tool. Meanwhile, his style of government is almost completely technocratic, with politics, insofar as it appears at all in non-election years, reduced to closed-door negotiations between powerful interest groups. The battles over health care is the perfect illustration. There were no appeals to lofty principles, no grassroots mobilization; in fact, the only broad popular mobilization was by the other side. In fact, this seems to be a regular pattern now. It is the Right who still speak of matters of absolute principle, or who encourage their supporters to take to the streets.
I don’t think this is simply a matter of changing attitudes. It represents a change in the social base of the Democratic party. At this point, both parties really just represent different fractions of the 1%; Wall Street funds both, but where the Republicans are supported largely by business, especially the extractive industries, the Democratic Party has become that of the upper echelons of the professional and managerial classes: of university administrators, museum board directors, doctors, lawyers, designers and marketing consultants. Their sensibilities are profoundly anti-democratic. Most assume ordinary Americans are not particularly bright, and that matters of governance are best left to professionals such as themselves. But they are obsessed with form. Rules, procedures, etiquette, respect for institutional norms, and the maintenance of at least the external show of civility, are everything to such people; divisive (“unprofessional”) behavior anathema even if it gets results. That too came through quite clearly in the battle over health care reform. Again and again we heard politicians like Obama declaring that what Americans really want was a change in the “divisive climate” in Washington—as if what was really important to the average working class single mother of two, desperate to ensure her children have access to regular medical check-ups, is whether politicians in Washington are being nice to one another. Only to someone who spent their entire careers surrounded by elite professionals would be blind to the obvious: that most humans in such a situation would not have cared less if Obama had personally kneecapped Joe Lieberman and couple Republican senators to boot, if it had meant even a 40% cut to their deductible. Hence widespread working class disgust at those who woo their votes on economic grounds. At least Republicans are goal-oriented—even if the goals are not their own.
Such sensibilities dominate the media, as well, if for no other reason than that journalists are themselves highly paid professionals. Thus while the content of US News might be skewed sharply Republican (Republican talking heads are twice as likely to be interviewed on CNN than Democrats), its forms and sensibilities are those of the procedure-obsessed center-left. In such a world, it makes perfect sense to see “democracy” as the gift of enlightened lawyers, popular participation as problematic or unimportant, and almost any form of corruption as acceptable if worked out through proper legal channels: which is why it has been possible to turn the US political system into one of institutionalized bribery by simply relabeling bribes as “fund-raising” and “lobbying” and then making most of them formally legal, without significant complaint. Similarly it makes it possible to suppress attempts to create old-style social movements objecting to such corruption using militarized force with barely a peep from the liberal establishment. After all, such people aren’t playing by the rules.
Most Americans are cut out of the system entirely. The fact that their views on policy issues have been rendered largely irrelevant is just the tip of the iceberg. Many are becoming increasingly alienated from even the most basic institutions of society. If being middle-class means above all having a sense that the institutional structure which frames one’s existence —the government, schools, police, even financial industry—are, or at least ought to be, there for one’s benefit, then it’s hardly surprising that, for the first time in living memory, a majority of Americans are telling pollsters that they no longer consider themselves middle class. But it leaves the honest observer wondering in what sense, precisely, the United States can still be called a democratic society.
Chalmers Johnson’s book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire was published in March 2000 — and just about no one noticed. Until then, blowback had been an obscure term of CIA tradecraft, which Johnson defined as “the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people.” In his prologue, the former consultant to the CIA and eminent scholar of both Mao Zedong’s peasant revolution and modern Japan labeled his Cold War self a “spear-carrier for empire.”
After the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, he was surprised to discover that the essential global structure of that other Cold War colossus, the American superpower, with its vast panoply of military bases, remained obdurately in place as if nothing whatsoever had happened. Almost a decade later, when the Evil Empire was barely a memory, Johnson surveyed the planet and found “an informal American empire” of immense reach and power. He also became convinced that, in its global operations, Washington was laying the groundwork “all around the world… for future forms of blowback.”
Johnson noted “portents of a twenty-first century crisis” in the form of, among other things, “terrorist attacks on American installations and embassies.” In the first chapter of Blowback, he focused in particular on a “former protégé of the United States” by the name of Osama bin Laden and on the Afghan War against the Soviets from which he and an organization called al-Qaeda had emerged. It had been a war in which Washington backed to the hilt, and the CIA funded and armed, the most extreme Islamic fundamentalists, paving the way years later for the Taliban to take over Afghanistan.
Talk about unintended consequences! The purpose of that war had been to give the Soviet Union a Vietnam-style bloody nose, which it more than did. All of this laid the foundation for… well, in 1999 when Johnson was writing, no one knew what. But he, at least, had an inkling, which on September 12, 2001, made his book look prophetic indeed. He emphasized one other phenomenon: Americans, he believed, had “freed ourselves of… any genuine consciousness of how we might look to others on this globe.”
With Blowback, he aimed to rectify that, to paint a portrait of how that informal empire and its historically unprecedented garrisoning of the world looked to others, and so explain why animosity and blowback were building globally. After September 11, 2001, his book leaped to the center of the 9/11 display tables in bookstores nationwide and became a bestseller, while “blowback” and that phrase “unintended consequences” made their way into our everyday language.
Chalmers Johnson was, you might say, our first blowback scholar. Now, more than a decade later, we have a book from our first blowback reporter. His name is Jeremy Scahill. In 2007, he, too, produced a surprise bestseller, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. It caught the mood of a moment in which the Bush administration, in service to its foreign wars, was working manically to “privatize” national security and the U.S. military by hiring rent-a-spies, rent-a-guns, and rent-a-corporations for its proliferating wars.
In the ensuing years, it was as if Scahill had taken Johnson’s observation to heart — that we Americans can’t see our world as it is. And little wonder, since so much of the American way of war has plunged into the shadows. As two administrations in Washington arrogated ever greater war-making and national security powers, they began to develop a new, off-the-books, undeclared style of war-making. In the process, they transformed an increasingly militarized CIA, a hush-hush crew called the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and a shiny new “perfect weapon” and high-tech fantasy object, the drone, into the president’s own privatized military.
In these years, war and the path to it were becoming the private business and property of the White House and the national security state — and no one else. Little of this, of course, was a secret to those on the receiving end. It was only Americans who were not supposed to know much about what was being done in their name. As a result, there was a secret history of twenty-first-century American war crying out to be written. Now, we have it in the form of Scahill’s latest book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield.
Scahill has tracked, in particular, the rise of JSOC. In Iraq, it grew into a kind of Murder Inc., “an executive assassination wing,” as Seymour Hersh once put it, operating out of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. It next turned its hunter/killer methods on Afghanistan and then on the planet, as the special operations forces themselves grew into an expansive secret military cocooned inside the U.S. military. In those years, Scahill started following the footsteps of special ops types into the field, while mainlining into sources in their community as well as other parts of the American military and intelligence world.
The phone call between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin after the Boston Marathon bombers were identified as Chechens, in which Obama thanked Putin for Russia’s cooperation on counter-terrorism and promised more such collaboration, was probably the most cordial exchange the two countries have had for some time. The thaw was occurring as Syrian troops were accused of committing a massacre of hundreds civilians as they advanced on Judaydat al-Fadl in the hinterland of Damascus. In other developments, Lebanon’s Hizbullah Shiite militia appeared to have been drawn more explicitly than ever before into the fighting in Syria near the Lebanese border.
It should be realized that from Aleppo in northern Syria, where the radical Jabhat al-Nusra is active, to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya in Russia, is only about 960 miles through Turkey and Georgia, about a 20 hour drive. In Chechnya, the nationalist Chechen forces of secularists, Sufis and other non-fundamentalists have since 1999 fought the radical Caucasus Emirate Islamic Insurgency, more or less an al-Qaeda affiliate, with Putin’s backing. Ramzan Kadyrov and Putin do not want a resurgence in the area of Muslim radicalism, and so hate the idea of the Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra defeating the secular Baath Party. (The secular-fundamentalist split in Chechnya, by the way, is mirrored in the Tsarnaev family. Anzor Tsarnaev married a daughter to a policeman working for Kadyrov, according to AP, while his son, Tamerlan, became a radical fundamentalist. See my “Fathers and Sons and Chechnya.”
Although Putin’s reasons for backing al-Assad are mostly geopolitical, having to do with reasserting Russia’s great power status, the two are also allied in opposing Sunni Muslim religious nationalism, especially the radical sort.
But Putin is not alone. The rise of Jabhat al-Nusra and of Sunni radicalism in northern Syria is alleged to be one reason the Obama administration declines to support the rebels militarily. They fear repeating the mistake of the Reagan administration, which encouraged the radical fundamentalists to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and created an atmosphere in which al-Qaeda could be founded in Afghanistan.
But frankly, after the bombing of Boston, the likelihood of US intervention in Syria, never very high, has plummeted toward zero. The Obama administration will not want to take a chance on ensconcing another radical hirabi (terrorist) organization in the Middle East, which might one day strike at the US. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry continue to plump for a diplomatic solution, perhaps involving Bashar al-Assad stepping down, and a joint Baath-rebel government that would move to elections. This scenario, resembling what happened in Yemen, where the ruling party allowed the opposition to join the government after the president was forced out, couldn’t be more unlikely in Syria. The Baath government has killed tens of thousands of people, and is just not any longer acceptable to most Syrians. But the US says it wants talks between the sides.
Even as the US kept hands off except for civilian aid, the situation on the ground in Syria became more dire. The pro-Sunni, anti-Baath Lebanese newspaper al-Mustaqbal reports on a massacre in Rif Dimashq, the region southwest of the capital of Damascus. Syrian troops loyal to the Baath government of President Bashar al-Assad have been fighting in Judaidat al-Fadl for five days, and finally took it on Sunday. But when the smoke cleared, there were some 560 dead, many of them women and children (according to rebel sources quoted by CNN). Al-Mustaqbal accuses the Alawi Shiite militias loyal to the regime, the Shabiha (Specters) of having summarily killed the villagers as an object lesson to the other residents of Rif Dimashq that they would be unwise to join the rebellion.
The newspaper sees this massacre as an act of sectarian ethnic cleansing, i.e. of Shiites intending to terrorize Sunnis.
In other news, the city of Qusair in Syria is on a notorious smuggling route that you could use to supply Homs from Lebanon. It and its hinterland, however, had fallen into the hands of the rebels. On Saturday, the Sunni Syrian rebels sent mortar fire on Hermel, across the border in Lebanon– a Shiite, Hizbullah stronghold. It was the farthest into Lebanese territory that Syrian munitions have fallen. A Hizbullah fighter was also killed in Zita a Shiite town on the Syrian side of the border.
Alarabiya reported that Hizbullah fighters assisted the Syrian army on Sunday in a counter-offensive in the hinterland villages between the Lebanese border and Qusair. These, Arab wire services alleged, fell one by one back into Government hands. They include al-Burhania, al-Ridwaniya, and Tel al-Nabi Mandu (the latter is strategic in being higher and allowing whoever holds it to dominate the surrounding villages). The Jordanian al-Dustur reported that the rebels now expect the Syrians to attempt to take back Qusayr itself.
If this report is true, it is the most direct attested intervention of Hizbullah in the Syrian civil war yet.
We who already have some of the liberties that youth Egyptians yearn for should not be so quick to surrender them. Tsarnaev is an American citizen and a civilian who killed and injured people on American soil. He is a murderer, and should be tried in the courts like a whole host of others who committed or plotted murder as a means to terrorizing the public.
The point seems obvious to anyone to the left of Attila the Hun. Those who point to the Civil War are confusing ordinary times with times of martial law. We’re not having a civil war and there is no martial law.
But here’s another consideration.
Paul Kevin Curtis stands accused (we don’t know if he is guilty) of sending a ricin-poisoned letter to President Barack Obama.
Obama is not just any civilian but is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States.
So if anyone should be charged as an enemy combatant, it should be Curtis. Yet senators McCain and Graham have not suggested that step.
Peter Bergen sagely writes that an “FBI study reported that between January 1, 2007, and October 31, 2009, white supremacists were involved in 53 acts of violence, 40 of which were assaults directed primarily at African-Americans, seven of which were murders and the rest of which were threats, arson and intimidation. Most of these were treated as racially motivated crimes rather than political acts of violence, i.e. terrorism.”
He points out that in December of 2011, Kevin Harpham was sentenced to 32 years for planting a bomb at the site of a Martin Luther King, Jr., parade in Spokane, Washington. There isn’t any difference between Harpham and Tsarnaev. Both targeted a public event involving moving through the streets. Harpham was allegedly a member of a hate group, the National Alliance, founded by William Price, the author of ?The Turner Diaries. He was also interested in the Aryan Nation..
I am not aware that Senators McCain and Graham suggested that any of these individuals be tried as enemy combatants.
I’ll just come out with it. I have to ask whether their use of the term “enemy combatant” is racist. Is it only for deployment against people not of northern European heritage?
Moreover, the system the senators are appealing to is itself broken. Despite assurances that the military tribunal system is fair and can work as well as a civilian trial, in fact defense attorneys at Guantanamo are full of horror stories about how their clients have been dealt with. A big problem is that many were tortured and so where they have confessed, the statements are tainted. And apparently once someone is sent to Guantanamo and charged as an enemy combatant, even if he is subsequently cleared for release it is hard for the government to let him go. Uncharged, unreleased prisoners are hunger striking. Guantanamo should be closed and the whole enemy combatant thing should be rolled up. It is an embarrassment before the rest of the world.
Between about 1:00 pm and 2:40 pm ET on Wednesday, April 17, the CNN news team was at the worst I’ve ever seen them. The afternoon began well, with the exciting revelation that the FBI now had recovered video of a suspect from a security camera at Lord & Taylor Department Store. But things went all downhill from there
John King reported that his source told him that the individual in the video was a dark-skinned male: “I was told they have a breakthrough in the identification of the suspect, and I’m told — and I want to be very careful about this because people get very sensitive when you say these things — I was told by one of these sources who’s a law enforcement official that this was a dark-skinned male. The official used some other words, I’m going to repeat them until we get more information because of the sensitivities. There are some people who will take offense even in saying that. I’m making a personal judgment — forgive me — and I think it’s the right judgment not to try to inflame tensions.”
Then Wolf Blitzer, refusing to take King’s hint that he didn’t want to say the words “Arab” or “Muslim,” asked if the person on the videotape could be heard speaking with an accent.
That was the low point. They were hinting around about Arabness or Muslimness, using skin color and accent as euphemisms. (Never mind that these are actually inappropriate markers for either group of Americans). King seems to have been told more of that kind of thing by his Boston PD source but, in his one piece of wise caution for the day, declined to retail further racist rumors. Blitzer can’t possibly be so naive about surveillance cameras as to think that they have audio. The question was a loaded one.
The moral tone could not have gotten any worse, but the journalistic one surprised us all by taking a nosedive. John King announced that a source in law enforcement had informed him that the authorities had made an arrest. This allegation was untrue, and Jon Stewart’s Daily Show raked King over the coals for being so eager for an exclusive scoop that he rushed to camera with a single, anonymous, uncorroborated source. In his defense, he later said that the source, in the Boston police department, had been reliable before, so he had a track record with the person. But clearly King should have checked with other sources before going on camera with that information. Dependence on a single highly placed source and willingness to grant the source anonymity are both banes of contemporary journalism.
Worse, it may have been a misunderstanding. CNN said the Boston PD source had said, “We got him!” Presumably that meant they had found a person on videotape who looked like the perpetrator. Did King simply misunderstand the exclamation? Did he not take the time to ask, “What do you mean by that?”
What made the afternoon truly horrible was that none of the substance reported or speculated on was known to be true by the FBI. The Bureau issued a denial that they had anyone in custody, or even had made a positive identification of the person in the video, about an hour after King’s breathless pronouncement.
The guy, he said in caps, was a WHITE MALE. Orr did not say if he spoke with an accent.
Almost nothing the experienced CNN television reporters said was true. At 2 pm you would have thought that a dark-skinned male, maybe a foreign one, was sitting handcuffed in a police car, the smell of bomb-making chemicals on his hoodie.
By the time we went to bed, we knew nothing again. Orr’s report on the appearance of the alleged perpetrator may or may not be true, itself.
What went wrong?
The technical problems derived from the capitalist model of news broadcasting. In a competition for advertising dollars, the scoop is not just the supreme public service or a source of prestige, it is big, big bucks. It is no secret that CNN’s ratings have been spiraling down. Hence the drive for the scoop that cuts corners, that accepts imperfect information from a single source not checked against others. The problems derived also in part from the 24-hour cable news format for dealing with big stories, which is to make them the only story for hours on end, requiring anchors and reporters to fill air time with speculation. It isn’t news reporting, it is chit chat, and derives from the entertainment model of news forced on the reporters by the networks’ search for advertising dollars. They are competing for eyeballs not because they have an important piece of breaking news to share but because each eyeball equals in increase in advertising rates. The goal is to keep people watching. They are petrified that if they switch to covering some other story than the one they have decided is on everyone’s mind, the audience will switch to a competing network. They therefore have to stay on the one story even when there are no developments, and are forced to emulate a talk show, engaging in a stream of consciousness discourse with one another, trying to keep the audience entertained with random thoughts expressed by good-looking people on weighty matters.
Streams of consciousness throw up streams of the unconscious, and sometimes darker thoughts and unworthy ideas bubble to the surface. The ethical problems enter there, superseding the technical ones. The contemporary anxiety around Arabness and Muslimness, despite the rarity of violence in the US from those quarters (American Muslims are disproportionately well-educated, well off, and Establishment) compared to terrorist actions of white supremacists, expresses America’s long national terror of the immigrant. That consideration is the significance of the marker of the accent in Blitzer’s question. (Again, never mind that by now most American Muslims are not immigrants). The underlying question is nevertheless the immigrant– that immigrant so necessary in a barracuda capitalist society for cheap labor but that immigrant so frightening for not yet being socialized to “American” values. That America has adopted fortress Israel as its frontier state, bestowing on it a role once played by Arizona and then by the Philippines, of being the furthest extension of white dynamism and virtue into a chaotic and barbaric brown world, reinforces the themes of the fear of the Arab and the Muslim, the inconvenient populations who decline to acquiesce in white assertion of superiority and dominance, the barbarians who resist despite their obvious inferiority. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), even manages to mix together in his fevered mind the supposed Latino threat with the supposed Muslim one.
Ironically, 100 years ago it would have been the Irish and the Jews, the Italians and Poles, to whom American racial anxieties attached, who would have been viewed as suspicious or dangerous for not being free market Protestants. (E.g. Sacco and Vanzetti.) The big wave of immigration that began around 1880 and was stopped by law in 1924 resembles that of our own day.
We’ve been here before. In Yogi Berra’s phrase, it is deja vu all over again. In response to a bombing in the West that killed former Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg in 1905, high officials of the Western Federation of Miners were arrested and tried for complicity (the “Haywood-Moyer-Pettibone Case”). The Chicago Daily Tribune reported on May 20, 1907 on a sympathy march staged to support the accused union leaders. The article was entitled “Socialist Parade under Red Flags” (the chief of police had unsuccessfully tried to ban the red flags). Those marching, the report sniffed, included “One Polish revolutionary society, which had several hundred marchers in line, sang the “Warsha Vyanska,” or “Song of Revolution,” as it passed along the route. The Poles carried a banner which read: “I’m an undeniable citizen but Teddy Roosevelt wants my vote.” The newspaper reassured the North Shore elite that an attack on the police had been forestalled.
A bombing, a restless oppressed group; uppity immigrants with radical foreign ideas and accents who use strange phrases; their assertions of Americanness mingled with a challenge to the WASP status quo– the keyword terrain of the 1907 article is identical to our own desultory news day in 2013.
It is, however, over 100 years later, and we ought to have made some progress.
The horrific bombings of the Boston Marathon produced inspiring images of a spirited, brave Boston refusing to be cowed. Some spectators surged forward toward the danger to apply tourniquets, offer first aid, share blankets, and later to give blood, for the victims.
President Obama followed the crisis from its first moments and came out promptly to caution against fruitless speculation as to the perpetrators as well as solemnly to vow that they will be held accountable. (He has a certain track record in that regard.)
The idea of three dead, several more critically wounded, and over a 100 injured, merely for running in a marathon (often running for charities or victims of other tragedies) is terrible to contemplate. Our hearts are broken for the victims and their family and friends, for the runners who will not run again.
There is negative energy implicit in such a violent event, and there is potential positive energy to be had from the way that we respond to it. To fight our contemporary pathologies, the tragedy has to be turned to empathy and universal compassion rather than to anger and racial profiling. Whatever sick mind dreamed up this act did not manifest the essence of any large group of people. Terrorists and supremacists represent only themselves, and always harm their own ethnic or religious group along with everyone else.
The negative energies were palpable. Fox News contributor Erik Rush tweeted, “Everybody do the National Security Ankle Grab! Let’s bring more Saudis in without screening them! C’mon!” When asked if he was already scapegoating Muslims, he replied, ““Yes, they’re evil. Let’s kill them all.” Challenged on that, he replied, “Sarcasm, idiot!” What would happen, I wonder, if someone sarcastically asked on Twitter why, whenever there is a bombing in the US, one of the suspects everyone has to consider is white people? I did, mischievously and with Mr. Rush in mind, and was told repeatedly that it wasn’t right to tar all members of a group with the brush of a few. They were so unselfconscious that they didn’t seem to realize that this was what was being done to Muslims!
It was easy for jingoists to find Chinese or Arabs on twitter gloating. But I saw much more of this kind of message:
#إنفجار_بوسطن Our religion doesn’t teach us to be happy on people’s’ miseries.
Similar sentiments were voiced by the journalist Fatima Naout, who said that when dozens of Egyptians died in a train accident, it took President Morsi 12 hours to come on television, and then he made only a brief statement of less than a minute. She also complained of innocents being arrested for sabotage and ultimately released, while what she called Muslim Brotherhood gangs attacked demonstrators with impunity. She said that the US is a nation of laws and upright judicial procedure, and Egypt still is not.
On the other side of the aisle in Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood members of the Senate (Majlis al-Shura) unhesitatingly condemned the bombings. MP Izz al-Din al-Kumi condemned all violence that harmed individuals of any nationality. He discounted a return to the ‘war on terror’ atmosphere of 9/11, saying that al-Qaeda had suffered too many blows any longer to be a viable organization. Dr. Farid al-Bayyad, another parliamentarian said, “Regardless of our differences with American policy, we roundly condemn these attacks.”
Some Syrians and Iraqis pointed out that many more people died from bombings and other violence in their countries on Monday than did Americans, and that they felt slighted because the major news networks in the West (which are actually global media) more or less ignored their carnage but gave wall to wall coverage of Boston.
Aljazeera English reported on the Iraq bombings, which killed some 46 in several cities, and were likely intended to disrupt next week’s provincial election.
What happened in Boston is undeniably important and newsworthy. But so is what happened in Iraq and Syria. It is not the American people’s fault that they have a capitalist news model, where news is often carried on television to sell advertising. The corporations have decided that for the most part, Iraq and Syria aren’t what will attract Nielsen viewers and therefore advertising dollars. Given the global dominance by US news corporations, this decision has an impact on coverage in much of the world.
So I’d like to turn the complaint on its head. Having experienced the shock and grief of the Boston bombings, cannot we in the US empathize more with Iraqi victims and Syrian victims? Compassion for all is the only way to turn such tragedies toward positive energy.
Perhaps some Americans, in this moment of distress, will be willing to be also distressed over the dreadful conditions in which Syrian refugees are living, and will be willing to go to the aid of Oxfam’s Syria appeal. Some of those Syrians living in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey were also hit by shrapnel or lost limbs. Perhaps some of us will donate to them in the name of our own Boston Marathon victims of senseless violence.
Terrorism has no nation or religion. But likewise its victims are human beings, precious human beings, who must be the objects of compassion for us all.