We have more to fear than fear itself: The news and the events of the week

By Tom Baxter

For modern-day philosophers contemplating the nature of news, last week provided a gruesome laboratory. News, we must posit first, is not events. It is the way that we react to events.

Last week an explosion strong enough to generate a mushroom cloud ripped apart a Texas town, killing at least 14 and injuring 200 more. Authorities intercepted letters containing a deadly poison, intended for the president of the United States and a U.S. senator from Mississippi. A justice of the peace and his wife were arrested in Texas and charged with three murders which had widely been attributed to a violent prison gang.

Of course, it was none of these stories which were the biggest news of the week, but the bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon which killed three people and injured more than 130, and the dramatic manhunt which followed.

But a true philosopher should resist the words “of course.”

Why should an event which so far has resulted in the deaths of five people (counting the three people killed at the race, the police officer Thursday night and the older of the two brothers who carried out the terrorist act) be more newsworthy than an explosion which killed several more, and for which the toll could rise still higher?

We might say, because terrorism is an ungoing threat to the country, and the Boston bombing was a reminder that the dangers exposed on 9/11 have not been expelled. But aren’t the dangers of lax safety regulations exposed by the Port Wentworth sugar refinery explosion in Savannah which killed 13 people five years ago also an ungoing threat? And doesn’t the explosion in Texas illustrate that, in sharp contrast to the threat of terrorism, almost nothing has been done about it?

We might say that no matter what the comparative death toll is, acts of intentional violence are intrinsically more newsworthy than mayhem that is caused by simple neglect.

But then why should one act of of violence be consider of such greater importance than another? Wasn’t the justice of the peace and his wife who carried out the cold-blooded murders of a district attorney, his wife and another prosecutor just as much a threat to the public order as the brothers, naturalized citizens with ties to a region in which neither were born, and a religion which neither observed until fairly recently, who carried out the bombing? If the poisoned letters had reached their destination undetected, wouldn’t the effect have been more disruptive to the country, even if the ricin had not killed the officials who were targeted, but those who opened their mail?

We might say that terrorism by a foreign group — in this particular case it might better be described as terrorism enabled by a foreign group — is fundamentally different and more sinister than terrorism committed by domestic screwballs.

But are they as different as we think? Consider the eerie similarity in the words of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the brothers, and whoever it was who set up Paul Kevin Curtis, an Elvis impersonator, by sending letters signed with his initials. (In yet another bizarre turn, authorities have cleared Curtis, who previously had reportedly attempted to warn authorities about a massive body-parts trafficking conspiracy he believed he had uncovered. It’s a strange, strange world.)

“Evil triumphs when good men do nothing,” Tsarnaev tweeted back in March. On the day of the marathon he tweeted, “There are people who know the truth but stay silent and there are people that speak the truth but we don’t hear them cuz they’re the minority.”

Compare this to the words used in the ricin-laced letters: “To see a truth and not expose it, is to become a silent partner in its continuance.” The timeless wisdom of visionaries is also the credo of nuts, whether they are classed as foreign or domestic.

The nature of news is worth rigorous examination because while it is not the same as events, it can create them. The heroic response of law enforcement officials and the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are certainly to be praised, but the role of the media in creating a heightened sense of emergency in some cases and not in others is deeply troubling.

Would the explosion in Texas have happened if the media had devoted even a fraction of the attention it has given several failed attempts at terrorism to the explosion in Savannah?

As deeply as the Boston Marathon bombing pierced the American psyche, how much could the Israelis have afforded to be distracted by a similar event — and there were several — during the first or second Intifada?

We think of “news” as something created by “the media.” But in the age of social media, it no longer is just the reporters, the networks and the newspapers which are the prime movers. It’s also the spectators, and increasingly,the perpetrators.

To the extent that all the media attention to the events in Boston created a sense of national purpose and solidarity (and another, long column deserves to be written about the truth of that), it served a positive function.

To the extent that it sowed a sense of fear and panic, directly affecting government’s response to the crisis, and to the extent that is created false distinctions between events, it needs the most searching scrutiny.

No longer can we say that all we have to fear is fear itself. What we don’t worry about as much can be just as dangerous. In an increasingly unpredictable world, the media must conduct itself accordingly.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

2 replies
  1. Hamp Skelton says:

    You mentioned the fertilizer plant explosion in the small town of West, Texas (which is not in fact in west Texas, but is near Waco), but you did not zero in on why it happened. There was a complete failure of safety inspections or regulation at that plant. There was ten times the ammonium nitrate at that plant as was used for the horrific Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, yet the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality did not visit, inspect or regulate this plant.  The TCEQ in fact does not visit such sites unless there is a complaint. Why?  Because Texas is an all-Republican state (not a single state-wide elected official is a Democrat) and in the thrall of the Big Lie that “all regulation is bad.” 
    Texas politicians mimic the Fox “news” mantra about unshackling businesses from needless regulations and other propaganda paid for by the industries that do not want to have to deal with regulation.  The result, this time, was a disaster that killed far more people than the Boston bombing.  The West, Texas explosion was entirely preventable, but don’t expect any changes. Texas, where I have lived since 1978, has a governor whose attributes are now well-known due to his brief run for the Republican presidential nomination. The attorney general has been quoted as saying his job is to “get up, sue Barack Obama all day, go home, and come back and do it again.”  That’s how you run for governor in Texas and the AG aspires to Perry’s job. 
    Until the news media doggedly pursues the Big Lies in American politics, in the manner the often-lamented Wall Street Journal pursued the lies at Enron, voters will remain uneducated and susceptible to the Fox “news”, Limbaugh-logic, Hannity hate narrative. Good investigative journalism and thoughtful commentary might help wake up Americans, even Texans, to the reality that many of us have been voting against our own interests, while the one-tenth-of-one-percenters continue to grab larger and larger shares of the national wealth through a rigged system where their businesses are exempt from sensible regulation and they are functionally exempt from taxes.Report

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