The U.S. After Boston

My country has real problems, but we’re too conspiracy-crazed to see them

by Paul Constant

Weird America by Dakota McFadzean

You guys, it’s getting weird down here.

Don’t get me wrong. Life in the United States is often weird, because we’re petrified of being bored. There’s always some actor who says something outrageous for us to swoon and bleat over, or some bored office worker who scrabbles together a perfect stop-motion Lego copy of the original Star Wars trailer. None of it is particularly meaningful, but there’s always more of it, at least; there’s always something new to gawp at. We’ve always been relentlessly weird.

Right now, we’re recovering from a week. Check that. Capitalize it. We’re recovering from A Week. A Terrible Week. The kind of Week that can change the trajectory of an entire nation. When those first images of the bombing at the Boston Marathon came careening across Twitter, I summoned them up onto my computer and just stared at them. Other reporters in my office — I work at an alternative weekly in Seattle called The Stranger — wandered over to my computer and just stared at them, too. As often happens when you find something on Twitter, there was disbelief. “Is that real?” one of my coworkers said, eyeing the picture of a fireball blossoming out, with a few runners heading straight into it. “I don’t think that’s a real picture.” And then I clicked back to the first photo I found, a patch of sidewalk instantaneously brushed clear of all trace of humanity save for several very large puddles of blood.

This was not Photoshop. This was not a false alarm.

The first reporting out of Boston consisted of a ghoulish accounting: at least a dozen hurt. Then dozens hurt, with at least one killed. The numbers rose like that for days, until it finally settled on three dead, with over 260 injuries.

The week — sorry, the Week — that followed was so bizarre as to be unbelievable. From noon on Monday, the Boston Marathon bombings turned into a city-paralyzing manhunt that stretched until almost exactly quitting time Friday evening, like a sweeps-week TV miniseries, with several loud and dangerous firefights breaking out along the way.

And the Week was littered with other unbelievable incidents, too. Someone mailed deadly ricin to a United States Senator and to President Obama. An Elvis impersonator was arrested for the crime, then exonerated (at his post-release press conference, the innocent man reportedly said that he had no idea what ricin was; he believed he was wrongfully under arrest for sending some sort of rice dish to public officials).

Meanwhile, in a central Texas town with the confusing name of West, a fertilizer plant exploded and killed many more people than were killed in Boston — at last count, 15 had died and at least 200 were injured. That plant seems to have blown up because it was owned by a business that had not been visited by government safety inspectors in something like two decades’ time. This is a direct result of America’s terrible, creeping austerity that has metastasized over most of my lifetime, through conservative and liberal presidencies alike. Those deaths are a product of the unfettered market that failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney could not shut up about last year.

But if there is outrage in the United States about this utterly preventable tragedy, it only exists on left-wing blogs, safe from the eyes of the average American. Instead, the media is obsessed with figuring out the motivation behind bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The news channels can’t stop talking about Dzhokhar in the same breathless way they discuss an unpopular celebrity — say, Michael Jackson before he died. As though a single-sentence mission statement plucked from the brain of this 19-year-old is going to somehow unlock the secrets of human evil. As though there will ever be a satisfactory answer to the question, “why?”

Our response to the bombing has been disappointingly familiar to anyone familiar with modern U.S. history. News organizations eagerly disseminated wrong “facts” culled from Twitter in the hopes of getting something right before everyone else. Conservatives are trying to strip Tsarnaev of his rights as an American citizen to a fair criminal trial by labeling this attack as foreign Islamic terrorism. Those same conservatives are at the same time fighting valiantly to ensure that every man, woman, and child in the United States has a right to carry a very large gun wherever and whenever they want. Liberals and conservatives alike are falling over themselves celebrating the ubiquitous cameras of the surveillance state that identified the suspects. Politicians are earnestly discussing flying drones over American cities as a matter of course, to make us feel “safe”.

Don’t get me wrong; the United States has not gone nearly as batshit in the last week as we did after 9/11 on the torture-and-stripping-civil-liberties front (and we haven’t declared war on the Tsarnaevs’ native Chechnya — or, worse, mistakenly declared war on the Czech Republic — which, after the Bush Administration, feels like a laudable bit of restraint on our part). But maybe we haven’t gone as crazy as before because, after Bush-era wiretapping laws and Guantanamo and too many other terrible policies that President Obama has failed to defuse, we just don’t have that many rights left to chuck into the fire.

I was happy to see that Canada successfully avoided a Week of its own,  when police and intelligence agencies thwarted an Al Qaeda plot to destroy a Toronto passenger train. If I may be so presumptuous as to offer  some advice: don’t listen to the fearful. There will be cowards who, when faced with the prospect of this narrowly averted tragedy, will be eager to give up some rights in the hopes that a modicum of additional security might be obtained.

That’s a trade we in the United States decided to make years ago, and now it’s not even a topic for discussion anymore, the same way we can’t even be bothered to talk about the fact that some fertilizer company in Texas blew up a whole town because its executives didn’t feel like paying a little extra to provide a safe working environment. It’s the same way we can’t discuss how our Senate failed to pass a gun control measure — a background check bill that 90 per cent of all Americans support — sometime during The Week while we were all nervously checking our mail for poison and keeping an eye on CNN for the latest in faulty news tips. This commonsense measure failed because our politicians are in the sway of an enormously wealthy lobbying organization funded by gun and ammunition manufacturers. I could go on, but why bother? Nobody’s talking about it.

But there are plenty of things Americans are willing to talk about.

In the days since the bombs first exploded in Boston, we at The Stranger, and our counterparts at news organizations around the country, have been deluged with e-mails decrying the Boston Marathon bombings as the beginning of some enormous conspiracy perpetrated on the American people by the Obama Administration.

A far-right radio show host named Alex Jones has suddenly been embraced by the conservative right of the United States. Jones specializes in peddling outrageous conspiracies  about a spooky One World Government run by the Illuminati and, depending on who you ask, the Elders of Zion. I’ve interviewed many of his followers, some of whom believe that the World Trade Center was not struck by airplanes on 9/11, but rather that the “planes” were highly sophisticated holograms.

You’ve probably gaped in awe at our conservative politicians in the past. Last year alone, several of them made some outrageous claims about rape that I refuse to repeat here. All that stuff is child’s play compared to what I think is coming now. In certain mainstream right-wing channels, it’s now acceptable to say that President Obama probably colluded with Al Qaeda to commit the Marathon bombings, with little more “proof” than some misinformation that was accidentally disseminated by the media and the fact that our President’s middle name is Hussein.

These conspiracy theorists — almost all of them white, almost all of them male — have watched years of Fox News theories about President Obama’s birth certificate and his secret alliances intended to disenfranchise the American white man in favor of radical feminists and dirty, job-stealing immigrants from non-white countries. These same people are now digging through online photographs of the bombings as giddy armchair detectives, in the hopes of unraveling the official government story about Boston. In just a few days, they have constructed an alternate universe as intricate and as absurd as the storyline that JFK assassination nuts took decades to assemble. The internet works miracles, I guess. To hear them tell it, every major incident of violence on American soil — the Boston bombings, 9/11, the Newtown massacre, the Colorado movie theater shootings — was committed by the United States government in order to steal the “freedoms” of its own citizenry.

These people are not going away. There are more of them every day. And I believe that they may represent the future of the Republican Party as it prepares for the 2014 legislative and the 2016 presidential elections. Now that George W. Bush’s post-9/11 bargain — you give up your rights, and we’ll keep you safe — and Ronald Reagan’s anti-government, pro-unchained-business principles both met their explosive ends in one terrible week, all the right wing has to sustain themselves are unhinged fairy tales.

I have a feeling that we’re about to get a whole lot weirder down here.

Paul Constant is an American reporter who also happens to be an atheist, which means he can’t even ask you to pray for him.

2013-05-02