In the messy aftermath of the Boston bombings, there’s food for thought on the American state and the social media revolution.
So let’s just recap it all at once …
As the alleged Boston bombers were turfed up following a lock-down of the whole city, and the false ID of a missing student, Sunil Tripathi, as the bomber, a massive crowdsource via Reddit of people looking suspicious and wearing backpacks at a large event, the only surviving suspect was tracked down to a boat and pumped so full of lead that he is now unable to be questioned properly. A three-day argument was then made about whether he should be read his “Miranda” rights or not (“you have the right to remain silent …”) which can be skipped in extraordinary circumstances. Turns out he was Mirandised, but then senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham began to call for this US citizen, accused of a violent crime on US soil, to be treated as an enemy combatant, engaged in act of war. He was arrested on charges of using weapons of mass destruction and also of disrupting interstate trade, the latter to ensure that a federal death penalty could be invoked. Meanwhile CNN and others, reeling from 48 hours of misreporting, non-reporting, and desperate filling, were then faced with trying to work out whether there was any connection to the massive explosion of a fertiliser factory in West, Texas, on the anniversary of the Waco slaughter (and the Oklahoma City slaughter), or whether the 15 killed were simply the victims of American deregulation. At this point, an Elvis impersonator was arrested on suspicion of sending ricin poison to several senators and the White House, only to be later released — but not before someone had hacked the Twitter feed of AP website and tweeted that there had been bombs at the White House and President Barack Obama had been injured, which was picked up by Russia Today and, circling the world, knocked 100 or so points off the Dow in a matter of minutes. A busy day or two ended with the revelation that “Boston Strong”, the emerging slogan for Boston, had been trademarked by several parties as the smoke was still clearing from the second bomb — and with Senator Rand Paul, who had staked a claim for libertarianism in disputes about the use of drones against US citizens, now deciding that he really quite likes them, and if US citizens are killed by drones whilst in the commission of a crime, that’s OK.
What was striking about the responses to these attacks was that each challenge to the structure as was — of daily social-political life, of media and reality — came apart, not at the 50th challenge, or even the 10th in short order, but at the first.
The entire US system is a federal one, designed to deal with public order at the state level if possible. Yet to respect states’ rights would have been to respect Massachusetts’ refusal of the death penalty; so a way of managing that had to be found. The media’s purpose had been to distil and impart information from reality to reality — and ended up having to fill the gap between with fiction. The full court press of a social media society was employed, and information was lost in oversupply.
We’ve always known this about the American state. More than most it guarantees its commitment to being a “republic of laws”, by jumping into agreed-to imposed exceptions at the drop of a hat, from the Patriot Act, back through Bush v Gore, Nixon, and all the way through the suspension of democracy in the US Civil War to the Louisiana purchase. But these days — well, it doesn’t take much. Two bombs, after all, was part of a bad morning in Belfast in the 1970s. Awful as it is, the intent of the act is to be singled out as meaningful and exemplary, when it reality it is probably a mix of violent Islamism and home-grown American anomie. Treating it as nothing other than a crime — akin to a bank robbery in which three people are killed, investigating its motives for predictive purposes, but not evaluative ones — would have gone a ways to taming it.
Instead, once again, Americans have gone for the significance, for the moment.
“Treating [the bombings] as nothing other than a crime … would have gone a ways to taming it.”
Ironically, most of the American Right was billing and cooing over Margaret Thatcher because that is what she did against Bobby Sands and the hunger-strikers of the IRA (publicly; we now know what we always knew, that backchannel negotiations continued through the whole process) — refused their demands for political recognition and waited till the strike broke.
Yet that was in an earlier era, when politics had not yet been fully subjected to the culture of the image, the spectactle, and to the immense and persistent low-grade loneliness and separation that comes with the social media revolution, and which is now its major cultural effect. Strong societies, joined by real bonds — even when in conflict — can live by their own rules. Weakening ones, undermining themselves, must always resort to the exception in order to guarantee the rule survives.
Thus the constitution, the rights and freedoms of citizenship are guaranteed by suspending them — eventually doing so, so many times that the rule no longer rules, and the place ceases to be a republic of laws. After the barriers had all broken down between media, law, the citizenry and the state, how could the rule have survived? What was it now ruling?
Compare and contrast the single most famous photo image from the Blitz — a London milkman doing his rounds along a street that was now rubble. The image is half-staged and largely propagandistic, but true enough. Even when protesters were invading the Savoy Hotel to demand bomb shelters for the general public, things also kept going, the buses ran, the post was lodged into doors that now led nowhere.
It’s no slur on Americans, who have been brave, compassionate, and in some quarters retained a hipster-ish cool (having a potentially lethal Elvis impersonator helped), to point out that when a society has been engaged in wars without meaning or ethical ground, and get hit with atrocious reprisal that — in its fusion Islamist and Americanist themes — is itself looking for meaning, its chances of retaining resilience are somewhat diminished. When the whole culture itself has wider problems — of form and content, of information overload so grievous that meaning is squeezed to zero — then it is surprisingly vulnerable to real damage.
The question is not what happens when Sandy Hook and Boston occur in the same winter, but when they occur on the same day. So we go back to the ticker-tape … Tamerlan Tsarnaev may have killed three minor drug dealers/friends a coupla years back — and no one really bothered to investigate — because they were drug dealers. He and his brother may also have been finely turned out by FBI grooming. In the UK, a man who sold £85 million worth of golf ball detectors relabelled as explosive detectors was convicted of fraud, not murder, even though untold numbers have died from IEDs that went “undetected”.
In testing them, no one appears to have taken the simple step of opening them up to see if there were any working parts. They are still in use by the Iraqi government. And on we go through the wilderness of mirrors …