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Plaid Adder

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Member since: 2001
Number of posts: 5,518

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Answers to Two Rhetorical Questions

I hear these questions in the media, social and otherwise, and I'm just going to answer them here:

"How come we can lock down an entire major east coast city over a bomber, but cannot get pitifully basic gun regulations through Congress? Why is something like Newtown, or like the New Orleans parade massacre, not treated the same way we treat incidents labeled as 'terrorism'?"

Well, this is an important question. It has a simple but terrifying answer:

Terrorism is a threat to the state. Gun violence, so far--and Republican rhetoric being what it is, we don't know how long this will remain true--is a threat to the citizens. The state, like any other institution, looks out for itself first. The state protects itself far more efficiently than it protects individual citizens.

"Why isn't the New Orleans parade considered a national tragedy on the order of the Boston marathon bombing?"

The Guardian piece that is currently asking this question gives us many useful answers, most of them boiling down to: New Orleans is poor and black and so the white middle-class Americans who are the target audience for media coverage do not care what happens there. I would refine this only slightly:

In general, in the eyes of enfranchised Americans--by which I mean that group of reasonably affluent Americans who are educated and compensated well enough to be full participants in the political system--the heinousness of a crime is not really determined by objective and measurable consequences. Enfranchised Americans divide crime into two categories: crimes committed against enfranchsied Americans, and crimes committed by the disenfranchised against each other. The second category--the disenfranchised attacking each other--is "normal." It can be explained by precisely the things that disenfranchse people: poverty, low educational level, unemployment, the environmental crime infesting low-income neighborhoods, etc. Though nobody acknowledges this openly any more, for many enfranchised Americans race is also one of the things that defines "normal" crime. Crime committed in low-income, depressed, blighted, overwhelmingly non-white areas of a city is 'normal'--even if in terms of individual motives it makes no fricking sense--whereas crime committed in higher-rent districts is extraordinary. This is why Newtown is a national tragedy, and the individual shootings of children that go on every day in Chicago is 'normal.' The kids at Sandy Hook were *supposed to be safe.* Kids on the Chicago south side, well, they are not safe, but that's 'normal.'

I owe this insight partly to the opening of Patricia Cornwell's 1990 novel _Postmortem,_ where her narrator/detective Kay Scarpetta lays this out in unusually blunt language in the opening chapter. Alas I cannot quote the passage from memory. But the passage is part of Scarpetta's explanation for why the murders she's investigating--all of professional women, in their own homes, tied up in an ingeniously sadistic way so that when the murderer rapes them they are strangled at the same time--garner so much attention. Murder in the poor and Black areas of the city, she explains, is normal. But these women, no, they are "somebody's sister, somebody's girlfriend, somebody's mother," etc. I imagine one out of about one thousand readers of that passage maybe stops to wonder what it takes, in this world, to become "somebody," as opposed to the nobodies who are losing their own loved ones to 'normal' crime.

All this contributes to the idea that crime amongst middle-class white people--especially if, as in the case of Newtown, it is also committed by middle-class white people--is somehow worse and more important and more devastating because it is 'crime out of place.' It's crime crossing the borders that are supposed to contain it. When people talk endlessly about the 'senselessness' of such crimes, part of what they are saying is that in the absence of poverty and all its problems (and, depending on who you're talking to, in the absence of brownness or blackness) crime does not 'make sense.'

I find this incredibly frustrating. To me murder never makes sense. Human life is so much more important than any of the reasons people take it, 'rational' or otherwise. To most everyone else in this country, murder is 'rational' (though deplorable) when it is committed for material gain (whether money, security, or power) and irrational otherwise (when committed either out of pleasure or compulsion, or where there is nothing obviously gained by it at all). And so a murderer like Adam Lanza provokes national fear and national curiosity, whereas a child killed by a man with a gun on the south side for equally nonsensical reasons is written off as part of an existing and comfortable narrative about 'normal crime,' such as the ever-popular "gang-related violence."

All crime is extroardinary to the people it happens to. It becomes 'normal' only at a distance. The farther away from you it seems, the more normal it gets.

The Plaid Adder
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