Are we any different today than we were last week, before the bringer of American tragedy, Osama bin Laden, was killed?
National tragedies have a way of erasing the blackboard. In an instant, everything that had been scribbled there becomes irrelevant. Before the tragedy, the ship of state chugs along on its own neurotic day-to-day news cycles, the passengers distracted by phantoms and mole hills that, given enough time to obsess over and enough media outlets with financial stakes in the distraction, become mountains. The vital issues are often shunted to back pages.
For example, in the weeks before President Kennedy went to Dallas in November 1963, the stories that obsessed Americans were fluoridation of drinking water; the arrest and “grilling” by the Soviets of Yale professor Frederick Barghoorn, ratcheting up Cold War tensions; and stories about two sleazy D.C. operatives, Rep. John Byrnes (R-WI) and Bobby Baker, Democratic insider and occasional pimp for horny legislators. The Byrnes case is déjà vu in reverse — he realized a 1,000 percent profit in three years on an investment in a mortgage insurance company that he helped get a “favorable federal tax ruling.” In a penitent speech on the House floor, Byrnes wept as histrionically as John Boehner and got a standing ovation (and no ethics probe).
Stories shoved to the back pages included “U.S. to Start Pullout from Viet-Nam” (1,000 military advisers were to be pulled) and “U.S. Ambassador Attacked in Dallas by Anti-UN Demonstrators” (Adlai Stevenson was assaulted by a right-wing mob; he told JFK adviser Arthur Schlesinger that he was “shocked by the current of hatred in Dallas” and advised the president to cancel his planned trip there).
Likewise, during the week prior to 9/11, America was obsessed with the sex life of Rep. Gary Condit (D-CA), “moral qualms” over federal support of stem cell research and “trend” stories like Britney Spears-inspired duds on school-aged nubiles and “canine freestyle” (humans dancing competitively with dogs at discos). Stories swept to the side included the surging unemployment rate; the “fear of recession” in the wake of Bush tax cuts; calls by opponents for an economic stimulus package; rise in for-profit “therapeutic training schools” (read: boot camps) for troubled teenagers; a national rise in homeless population; and the loss of a “professional class” in Afghanistan.
After spending hours going through microfilm back issues of newspapers and magazines, the common thread that I found between the two national tragedies was that the stories that had cushioned Americans from items of real importance disappeared in an instant, never to be heard from again. The truly important stories never actually went away.
Why does it take a sudden national tragedy (the Giffords shooting, for example) to temporarily erase the blackboard? Today, the stories and personalities that will, in 10 years (or 10 minutes), be utterly forgotten continue to dominate news cycles: Donald Trump, Koran-burning “preachers,” Justin Bieber, Charlie Sheen, etc. The hysteria over Barack Obama's “citizenship” distracted even the nation's leader at a time of genuine crises on several fronts. Will the proffered birth certificate sate the rabid beast? Of course not.
Consider even the barest bones of our current reality: unprecedented income inequality; 300,000-plus home foreclosures per month; an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent (U.S. unemployment from 1948 to 2010 averaged 5.7 percent); those “lucky enough” to have jobs have seen pay stagnate if not decrease, health premiums skyrocket and benefits shrink, while gas and essential consumer prices reach new highs. Meanwhile, Exxon just announced quarterly profits 69 percent higher than one year ago.
Doesn't this constitute tragedy? It may not be JFK's murder or 9/11, but the longterm impacts are just as devastating.