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On Our Politics of Fear | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

On Our Politics of Fear


First responders surround the site of the Boston Marathon bombing. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa.)

“Does that have something to do with the guy who sent poison to the president?” the guy who owns the cafe where I write asks about the melodrama unfolding this morning in Boston.

“No, that was just a crazy guy from Mississippi.”

A friend texts, two days ago: “Jesus wtf now explosions in Texas!?”

I write back: “Feels like an accident to me.” (What I thought, shamefully, was: “not political. Just an accident.” Just an accident!)

We live in interesting times, just like the old Chinese curse warns us again. A terrorist attack in Boston, followed by a state-of-the-art witch hunt: a cellphone picture of two Moroccans near the finish line, posted online, soon plastered on the front page of the New York Post, and suddenly lives are turned upside down for fear of vigilante justice. A Saudi national detained at the hospital, suspicious because he was “running” (running after an explosion: how suspicious), ginned up into a claim on Fox News that “he is now going to be deported on national security grounds,” then escalated by professional shrieker Pamela Geller into an obvious cover-up by the Saudi royal family in cahoots with B. Hussein Obama. Ideologues saddle up their hobbyhorses in order to ride; but at that, I am an ideologue, too. I spent much of yesterday lining up my argument for why a white nationalist militia type might want to spray shrapnel into a crowd on Tax Day, that shrapnel of this type is a classic marker of white-supremacist bombcraft, how an FBI obsessed with entrapping Arabs and anarchists ignores the right-wing lunatics in our midst. And, once I hear of the screen grabs of what I hear someone call “regular-looking white guys,” in baseball caps, no less, I get ready to pull the trigger on the argument…

And when Fox News wins in the end, I deflate. Chechens. Muslims! A Fox personality on my screen tells me one of the suspects linked to some site that had something to do with some jihadi prophesy about how the caliphate would unfold, then cautions that this doesn’t mean they’re Al Qaeda for sure…

A calamitous explosion near Waco. Waco! My friend who texted is a libertarian—which sets me to thinking that if even libertarians suspect some latter-day Timothy McVeigh must be responsible, I should be speculating that, too… And then, no: not terrorism. Just austerity, deregulation, a laggard Occupational Safety and Health Administration. As Lee Fang noted in this space yesterday, OSHA “has only inspected five fertilizer plants in the entire state of Texas—and the plant in West, Texas, was not one of them.” This particular facility was last inspected twenty-six years ago. “The US Chemical Safety Board, which came into operation in 1998, is the commission tasked with investigating safety violations. Like similar boards, the Chemical Safety Board has virtually no resources: only a $10 million budget to cover every violation in the country.” I recast my dudgeon: the outsized devastation in West, Texas—see the hospital, nursing home and middle school within steps of the factory on the map at the bottom of this article—owes to the absurdities of right-wing hegemony, too: what ever happened to zoning?

Yes, it’s true: having dismounted the “maybe right-wing terrorists did it” hobbyhorse, I’ve mounted another. So sue me.

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Ricin-infested letters sent to Obama and Senator Roger Wicker. The FBI arrests in a man named Paul Kevin Curtis. I find my way to the web site of the Jackson Clarion Ledger, hastily comb my way through “Who Is Paul Kevin Curtis?”: Elvis, Johnny Cash, Prince (??), and Bon Jovi impersonator; apparently politically motivated (“I am KC and I approve this message,” his letters read), and then—bingo! Something posted this on Facebook after the Boston bombing: “We have let God down. We removed prayer from schools in 62.” I eagerly await confirming details that this guy’s some acolyte of Glenn Beck… and isn’t it interesting that my eye never noticed what came next in his post, that “we have staged wars simply for profits in oil and drugs.” Then, it’s revealed the guy’s simply in tinfoil hat territory: a paranoid bipolar off his meds, convinced he was being spied on by drones, having “discovered a refrigerator full of dismembered body parts & organs wrapped in plastic in the morgue of the largest non-metropolitan health care organization in the United States of America.” My knee stops jerking.

Interesting times. What does it all add up to? Nothing, probably. As ghastly, evil, overwhelming, tragic, as the events this week in Boston, Texas, the Capitol mail rooms have been, it’s easy to forget, in our oh-so-American narcissism, enveloped in the wall-to-wall coverage that makes our present catastrophe feel like the most important events in the universe, how safe and secure Americans truly are by any rational standard. Terror shatters us here precisely because ours is not a terrifying place compared to so much of the rest of the world. And also not really an objectively terrifying time, compared to other periods in the American past: for instance, Christmastime, 1975, when an explosion equivalent to twenty-five sticks of dynamite exploded in a baggage claim area, leaving severed heads and other body parts scattered among some two dozen corpses; no one ever claimed responsibility; no one ever was caught; but, pretty much, the event was forgotten, life went on and no one anywhere said “everything changed.”

A less narcissistic time, perhaps. Not now. Now, we let trauma consume us. Now, our desperate longing to know—to find easy, immediate answers—confines us, makes us frantic, reduces us to our basest cognitive instincts. And ultimately that’s all I really have to say today, and all I really have to write: to record a testament that people can reflect on fifty years from now, if they want to know it felt like to live in America the week of April 15, 2013.

Read Rick Perlstein’s latest in his coverage of the Chicago school closings.

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