Is it real terror?
December 8, 2015 | Faithful readers of a certain age will recall the Memorex advertising campaign many years ago with the tagline, "Is it real, or is it Memorex?"
The idea, of course, was that Memorex so faithfully captured sounds that it was indistinguishable from real sounds. One such ad featured the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald hitting a high note to shatter a wine glass.
I thought of that old chestnut this week amidst the latest shrill cacophany over what to call the shootings in San Bernardino. Everyone was deeply unsettled by the events, but some seemed even more unsettled bywhat to call them.
Pundits and assorted gasbags wrung their hands and gnashed their teeth about the question, Was this terrorism?
The New York Times even published a lengthy essay under the title A Nation Wonders When Bloodshed Becomes Terrorism. The Press-Enterprise in San Bernardino republished the essay under a more tabloid-style headline, SAN BERNARDINO SHOOTING: Terrorism? Murder? As the dead mount nationwide, a debate persists
In the immediate aftermath, everyone wanted an immediate answer: Was this terrorism? And responsible, cautious responses were rebuffed: The White House won't even say the word 'terrorism'!
The problem with all this epistemological debate is that it distracts from really understanding what happened and what to do next. Whether you call it terrorism, a mass murder, a shooting rampage, or whatever, the dead are just as dead, the injured are just as injured. It takes away from dealing with the human tragedy. Imagine going to work in the Environmental Health Services division, knowing that 14 of your colleagues were mowed down and another 21 were seriously injured.
Eventually, however, on December 4th, the FBI Assistant Director for the Los Angeles Field Office, David Bowdich, said the magic words: "We are now investigating these horrific acts as an act of terrorism."
Whew! Glad that's settled. A huge collective sigh of relief comforted the conflicted. Now everybody knew just how to tell the story: Be afraid! Terrorists strike in the homeland! You're not safe anywhere! Be very afraid!
But with the 2016 presidential campaign in full swing, nothing is ever settled. The Republican wannabes fell all over themselves trying to outdo the others sounding tough on terrorism. But not a single one of them would touch the inconvenient fact that what ties almost all these killings together is the weaponry involved. The AK-47 and AR-15 have become the weapons of choice. These are designed for military use with one aim: kill as many of them as you can so they don't kill you. In the hands of a troubled, enraged, or "radicalized" (I hate that word) person, they wreak unimaginable havoc in a matter of seconds. No tragedy has proven great enough so far to inspire our senators and representatives to do something to curb the sale of weapons of war. In fact, just one day after the San Bernardino shootings, the Senate blocked a measure that would have prevented people on the terrorism watch list from buying guns (Newsweek).
Trump, determined to out-crazy the crazies, has now announced that all Muslims should be barred from entering the US "until the nation’s leaders can 'figure out what is going on' after the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., an extraordinary escalation of rhetoric aimed at voters’ fears about members of the Islamic faith" (NYTimes).
We can now say that fear, bigotry, and xenophobia — like sex — sell.
What is truly tragic is that all this loose talk will so inflame public opinion that leaders will be tempted to do things that will harm the long-range interests of the United States and for which an apology will be necessary in the future.
Last updated on May 11, 2016