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Which Deaths Count?

By April 26, 2013 3 Comments

I’ve been trying to figure out which deaths count and which don’t—not in the eyes of God, of course, but in those of the American public. Or at least of the media that purport to purvey reality to the American public. The unholy trinity of carnage last week brings the question starkly to mind: bombing in Boston, factory explosion in Texas, and the threat of a filibuster in the Senate thwarting the most modest attempt at handgun control.

Each has a body count, but the least counts most. That would be the Boston explosion: three dead, over 200 injured, some of them critically, half of them seriously. The explosion at the West, Texas fertilizer plant killed fourteen and injured another 200. The fatalities from firearms in America this year will probably top 30,000 again (32,000 was the toll in 2011, the most recent numbers I could find). That represents over half of the 55,000 violent deaths that occur every year in the USA. Fully 20,000 of that total are suicides by handgun— by far the most effective, most impulsive, and most predictable means of suicide.

Those are the counts; here’s what counts. In response to Boston: a million people shut up in their homes, a city brought to a standstill, and day upon day of saturation coverage by national news networks and papers. From Texas, a recurrent place in the news cycle that day, but fading interest once the smoking crater had been pictured and the lack of any ‘terrorist’ agent behind the blast established. From Washington: a pride of the Senate minority gloating at a news conference that they had stopped a dastardly assault upon American freedom. So dear is that freedom, one of their number (South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham) has said since, that while a terrorist suspect may be denied jury trial, he may not be denied the right to possess whatever firearms his addled heart or mind desires even if he’s on a watch list.

How do we make sense of this, other than by joining the long line of commentators pointing out hypocrisy, lunacy, or ignorance’s firm hold on the American mind? For me it comes down to the power of narrative in the national culture: which ones compel attention and belief? To be sure, production values have something to do with it. I mean, how exciting is that gaping Texas hole once the camera has settled on it for five minutes? The poor schlumps who off themselves in a fit of despair? Meh—that happens. Their choice. Plus private and secret, with a hushed-up aftermath. Not good drama. But Boston? Can you say reality TV on steroids? Blood, mayhem, panic, throngs fleeing from—and lesser numbers jumping into—the fray? Endless eye-witnesses to interview; a manhunt to follow; terse-talking cops to pump for information. And oh those cops! All SWATed up in the full panoply of military gear, many of them. Not the ones who caught the perp, but never mind. Focus rather on the files of Darth Vader types streaming down the streets, assuring us that Security is at hand.

My father used to tell me about cop shows he tuned in on the radio as a boy in the 2310s, featuring G-Men, T-Men, and other heroes tracking down Public Enemy #whatever. Boston gave us the 24-hour news-TV version of the genre. But it also gave us a resonant Bad Guy. This was lacking in Texas. After all, death by negligence is very common and undramatic; we have people falling every day to workplace accidents. And the American public like the tax reductions and small government that spell fewer inspections of questionable factories. The Texas plant was last certified in 1986; neighbors’ complaints about noxious odors and haphazard conditions went a-gleaming. Until the plant became one big bomb bursting in air. But if you couldn’t find live footage thereof, the viewer draw just wasn’t there.

But the Boston Bad Guy was made to order. At least once his ‘foreign’ credentials had been established. Never mind that he’s lived half his life in the USA, is wired up like any good American youth, participated in no mosque or Islamic study club, and has disappointingly light skin. Muslim he is and dark he counts and rights—so says the Right—he does not have. He and his dead brother can be thus fit into an older American story than even my father’s crime-busters radio serial. One of our oldest stories, in fact, and certainly the most precious. The story of the Savage Indian. Savage Indian, first, incarnates pure evil; secondly, is not one of us but comes from the outside; thirdly, threatens children and women-folk; fourthly, can be brought to heel and eliminated by the Strong Brave Hero, which elimination—fifthly—restores peace and quiet and equilibrium so that the good folk of the community—for good we all are, every mother’s son of us—can go back to their business.

That negligence kills far more every year than ‘terrorism,’ and suicidal despair, guns handy, far more yet; that the leaders of the good people do little in the first instance and maximize gun-availability in the second; and that the High Rulers of the good people, Presidents Barack Bush and George W. Obama, exercise freely the right to rain death from above on anyone they decide is a Savage Indian on whatever frontier around the world, levying that particular bit of terror by a surgically precise weapon which nonetheless racks up the collateral damages once known as the death of innocents, thus triggering more resentment and more likelihood of terrorism—well, it all adds up to a story of a good people and true trying to preserve their liberties from bad actors who hate them.

Only, the Hero in the saga of the Savage Indian has to ride off into the sunset at the end of the show, heading over the next mountain range so as to carry out his purgative vengeance anew, for civilized society offers him no abiding place. Our hero, on the other hand, has become collective: the military abroad and a militarized police at home and fevered talking-heads who sell their story. These all do not, cannot, abide across the range in the wilderness but come back home, where the good citizenry in the meantime arm themselves to the teeth. How, then, to invoke Francis Schaffer, shall we live, and where?



James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


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