Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Murder and the Media

I suppose that if journalism is an art, and if art imitates life, art is perforce a pretty grim business these days.  My last two posts were decidedly grumpy.  As a fairly cheerful and generally good-humored person, I’d hoped to be able to take up a lighter strain this week, but, honestly, how could I?  A week ago today a couple of murderers—as in married couple—massacred a large number of my fellow citizens at an office party in California, the specific site being the husband’s workplace.  These two, still enjoying the more moderate nomenclature of “suspects,” very soon themselves died in the traditional “hail of bullets” in the obligatory “black SUV”.

            The brief and bloody tragedy concluded, the more leisurely week-long journalistic farce could then proceed.  The first puzzler was the question of motive.  The male murderer was named Syed Rizwan Farook; his wife was Tashfeen Malik, late of Pakistan via Saudi Arabia.  Both were clad as warriors, and they bore warriors’ weapons.  But why should these two go postal?  After all, it wasn’t even a post office.  The journalistic search for motive lasted about two days.  Its tone was very much that of adults playing a game of hide-and-seek at a birthday party for three-year-olds.   The little girl hiding behind the curtain cannot stop giggling, and her distinctively pink shoe is sticking out about eight inches, but the dutiful parents must not notice such things.  No, their job is stomp noisily about the room expressing utter befuddlement as to where in the world she might be.  “Look under the couch,” shouts Mom to Dad.  “Maybe she’s under the couch.”

            Just as a diagnosis of “workplace violence” was trending, somebody found a really big clue.  Very shortly after dropping off her baby at grandma’s but before perpetrating mass murder, Tashfeen Malik had gone on line to pledge allegiance to the caliph of the Islamic State, who has called upon all true Muslims to murder as many American infidels as possible in any way possible.  And, oh, yeah, there was a stockpile of pipe bombs at her house.  This offered the Orange County Register a new opportunity for nuance:  “Authorities have suggested the possibilities of both a workplace dispute and international terrorism, or a combination of the two”.

            Political correctness has this in common with fine poetry: it demands of us a willing suspension of disbelief.  One must accommodate one’s mind to the simultaneous assent to contradictory propositions.  Now I was trying to follow the story of the San Bernardino massacre while writing deathless prose concerning a Latin work of Petrarch.  I was depending for the “news” upon brief, intermittent plunges into the Internet.  The circumstances were maximally conducive to “cognitive dissonance”—a phenomenon frequently encountered in my life, but rarely in so pure a form.

            The moment the previously invisible Muslims took belated form in the journalistic mind, the media wanted more than anything else to see them and display them to the American public.  As they were unfortunately in the morgue, the next best thing was to display their now vacant apartment.  I don’t know if the rentier class is truly the most despicable on earth, but the defuncts’ landlord did nothing to disprove the suggestion.  He allowed free access to the place to interested people bearing notebooks, microphones, and video cameras.  Such people were very many, and lo, they were very obnoxious.

            So the first thing I found on the Internet was a video archive of a segment, done live on MSNBC, of reporter Perry Sanders (on the scene) and his remote handler Andrea Mitchell (back at studio home base) ransacking the Farook-Malik domicile.  The general vibe was that of a rugby scrum, or the very last day of the Cézanne exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum.   Look!  Muslims lived here, real Muslims, sat at that very table!  Look!  Muslim furniture, Muslim light fixtures, my God, actual Muslim wallboard!  An early high point is the discovery of an Arabic primer.  Arabic, Sanders tells us sagely, is “very important.”

Thus the ace reporter moves from room to room making inane remarks about the quotidian material possessions of the dead murderers, leading us nowhere nearer to the mystery of iniquity in their fanaticism, but exposing the vapidity of cable television and the vast Hick Nation that laps it up.  It would take an H. L. Mencken to describe the activities of his fellow journalists.  Seldom has prurience had to sate itself on such meager scraps.  Andrea Mitchell, who must eventually be a decent person, sent Perry in search of family photographs, but when he found them, some vestigial sense of decorum kicked in.   She didn’t want him to show the pictures of the unknown and unnamed children; and pretty soon she pulled the plug on the whole Muslim Apartment Tour, but not before he bags “two books that appear to be the Koran….They’re in Arabic”.

The week was not yet over.  The President’s speech was still ahead, as was the conversation now underway concerning a strange meaning of the words radical and radicalization.  “Radicalization,” I take it, is something akin to a dread virus, or the result of a zombie bite on The Living Dead, except that you can apparently bite yourself, leading to the curious phenomenon of self-radicalization.  But fortunately my time is up.