The shooting of nineteen innocent people, including two children, at a Mother’s Day celebration in New Orleans yesterday was an act of violence only gaudy enough to hold the nation’s attention momentarily. Shortly after the bodies were cleared, the FBI said they “have no indication the shooting was an act of terrorism. ‘It’s strictly an act of street violence in New Orleans.'” At that, we were free to let our attention drift. In America, all villainy is not created equal.
A couple of disaffected young men in search of meaning drift into radical Islam and become violent. A couple of disaffected young men in search of meaning drift into street crime and become violent. A crowd of innocent people attending the Boston marathon are maimed by flying shrapnel from homemade bombs. A crowd of innocent people attending a Mother’s Day celebration in New Orleans are maimed by flying bullets. Two public events. Two terrible tragedies. One act of violence becomes a huge news story, transfixing the media’s attention for months and drawing outraged proclamations from politicians and pundits. Another act of violence is dismissed as the normal way of the world and quickly forgotten. The victims bleeding on the ground may be forgiven for failing to see the distinction between the two acts. For those on the receiving end, violence is violence. For the rest of us, it is a rhetorical tool, to be deployed when it fits a narrative of American triumphalism. Otherwise it will be forgotten, by everyone except the victims.
Besides countless deaths abroad and a staggering debt at home, the primary legacy of America’s “War on Terror” is our profoundly warped sense of the dangers of the world we live in, and of who our “enemies” are. As a rule, the rare violence committed by Muslims, with some political or religious motivation, is “terrorism,” and deserving of the attention of the public and of our stern-faced leaders. The far more common and destructive acts of violence committed every single day on the streets of America due to poverty and the drug war and lack of education and simple human viciousness are “street violence,” which is treated as some timeless aspect of the human condition. This violence, which kills many more Americans each year than any Muslim terrorist could dream of, is unworthy of our brain space. (Black-on-black crime— whether 19 people shot in New Orleans, or 12 people shot at a Baltimore cookout, or 54 people shot in a single weekend in Chicago— is considered least newsworthy of all.) We shake our heads, perhaps, but we do not allow it to occupy us, if we are fortunate enough not to be touched by it personally. Our leaders may bemoan it, but they do not make it a national priority. The media reports on it, but it does not dwell on it.
Without fully endorsing Nolan’s beliefs in what’s causing this violence, he’s got a great point. Do you think Muslim terrorists threaten Americans more than violent criminals do? Do you think people in Chicago are more afraid of being blown up by a Muslim, or shot by a gangbanger? As you know, I live in south Louisiana. I know lots of people who will not go to New Orleans, because of stuff like this. They would go to Boston in a heartbeat. They do not fear Muslim terrorists in Boston. They do fear young black male thugs in New Orleans. As well they should. From the Times-Picayune report:
The woman said the gunmen fired into the crowd of about 300 as if they were playing a popular duck-hunting video game in which players aim at a sky full of ducks and try to shoot as many as possible.
“That’s how these boys shoot – pop-pop-pop-pop. They have no idea the meaning of life,” she said, with tears streaming down her cheeks. “You have an intended target, but you’re still shooting like you’re hunting ducks in the sky. It’s hurtful. Bullets don’t know no names.”
Many of the family members said they were outraged.
“If they’re beefing, it’s not the people at the second-line, so why are they retaliating at the second-line?” said Shannon Roberts, 32. Three of her family members – a 21-year-old nephew, a 37-year-old niece and a 39-year-old cousin – were shot in the arms, stomach and back. “The city needs to stop the violence. It’s hurting our families.”
Another woman, Erica Garner, whose nephew and sister had been shot, said the shooting exemplified how the city’s violence is out of control.
“This ain’t nowhere to live,” she said. “This place a hellhole.”
“That’s how these boys shoot.” Which boys? Why?
USC’s Jon Taplin spoke to the media angle on fear creation a few weeks ago, commenting on the saturation coverage of the Boston bombings. Excerpt:
When the inevitable happens and they are cornered by the cops, they comically try to throw one of their IED’s at the cops, only to have it bounce 20 feet in front of them, explode and fill their own legs full of shrapnel.
But if you were to tune into Cable news on Thursday or Friday, you would have not heard about this Opera Bouffe, but rather be confronted with all the post 9/11 Terror in our Cities graphic packages, complete with scary music. A whole city shut down for 24 hours over what should have been treated as a high level SWAT operation. Was there anyone who even dared to ask if this was really the appropriate reaction?
As I have been saying for a while, the default setting for American media and finance culture for at least the last 12 years has been FEAR. It has forced us to overreact in almost every sector.
I get this. I’m at times susceptible to it, as you know. Aren’t we all? A couple of weeks ago, I posted a remark a friend made about having to watch hours of MSNBC while visiting a relative. He said if the world really was what he saw on cable news (the same is true of Fox, I’d say), he’d want to kill himself, or somebody else. The fear and the loathing. The thing is not that we never have anything to be scared of. Confident people thought the Iraq War would be a cakewalk. Confident people didn’t see the housing bubble coming. The trick is to discern which of our fears are based on reality, and which are based on little or nothing.
I would say our media are not a reliable guide to what’s worth being afraid of, and what is not.