America’s “Exceptional” Reality
Mainstream media are intensively focused on last year’s Boston Marathon victims in their run-up stories to this year’s April 21st Marathon. It is enough to divert people’s attention from what our government does to countless more human beings in our name—which would explain why so-called “terrorists” would want to hurt us Americans. This statement is not meant, in any way, to minimize what happened in Boston in 2013. The lives of the four persons killed and over 260 injured last year are most precious, and words will never adequately express the terrible loss of loved ones and devastating injuries suffered. Nor is the intent to minimize the culpability of the alleged Marathon bombers. But something else is going on here—and it is not in the best interest of last year’s bombing victims, nor the rest of us citizens.
The media’s all-out coverage of this year’s Boston Marathon is taking us far afield from another reality. For its pre-Marathon edition, Sports Illustrated came to Boston to photograph people gathered at Boylston Street’s Marathon “Finish Line” in Copley Square. The Boston Globe reported that some 3,000 people showed up for the photo. The large crowd overwhelmed Sports Illustrated’s photography director, Brad Smith, who was quoted: “Once I got here and saw the sheer number of people—it literally was something you can’t describe . . . I almost started crying. It was tremendous.” (“Anniversary events include Sports Illustrated photo shoot,” By Gal Tziperman Lotan, Apr. 13, 2014)
“I almost started crying.” Compare that Copley Square scene with another reality that moved people to tears, as reported by The New York Times. In 2009, in western Afghanistan, “villagers, crazed with grief [italics added], were collecting mangled bodies in blankets and shawls and piling them on three tractors . . . 113 bodies buried, including those of many women and children,” after “American airstrikes . . . had killed dozens and perhaps more than 100 civilians.” With “legislator, Mohammad Naim Farahi reporting that “the governor said that villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred,” Mr. Farahi said. “Everyone in the governor’s office was crying, watching that shocking scene.” (“Civilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan War, By Carlotta Gall and Taimoor Shah, May 7, 2009)
Unlike the exhaustive focus on the victims of last year’s Boston Marathon bombings, most of America’s dominant media pay little mind to the victims of U.S. aggression. The Boston Globe did report that “relatives” of the Afghan villagers, “received a payment of about $2,000 for family members killed and $1,000 for those injured.” (“Suicide attacks wreak havoc in Afghanistan,” By Laura King, Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2009) Responding to the compensation, a reported trucker, “Abdul Farahi . . . whose brother and two nephews were killed and wife was seriously burned,” said, “’It doesn’t make the pain in my heart go away.’” (Ibid) Whether $2000 in Afghanistan, or $2 million in Boston, you can’t put a price tag on a loved one’s life– nor on grief in the loss of that loved one.
Unlike their humanizing description of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, America’s dominant media do a disservice to us in reducing the victims, killed by our government in our name, to “pieces of human bodies,” rather than describing them as persons with names who loved, and were loved by, other persons with names—all of whom have their own empowering definition of what it means to be “strong.” Tragically, America’s “exceptional” reality depends on diminishing the humanness, and thus the reality, of The Other.
The Boston Globe’s many Marathon stories seem especially intent on diverting everyone’s attention from a different reality. Thus the “Anniversary events” piece also features “Harvard Better Together: Students for Interfaith Action,” who “walked from The Memorial Church in Harvard Yard to the bombing site, then gathered at Trinity Church in Copley Square to talk and reflect.” About what? The Globe reported, “’[The goal was] to have conversations about how to, as students from Greater Boston, think about issues of religion and violence, immigration, and how do we respond to events like these in a way that builds relationships,’ said Usra Ghazi, a first-year master’s degree student at Harvard Divinity School and outreach coordinator for Harvard Better Together.” (Anniversary events include Sports Illustrated photo shoot, (Ibid)
“Talk and reflect” about “religion and violence, immigration” and “building relationships?” These Harvard students are on track to that different reality. Might they have talked about and reflected on former President George W. Bush, who said, “I pray for peace,” and two weeks later launched a falsely-based, illegal pre-emptive war against non-threatening, defenseless Iraq? A president whose “exceptional” reality led him to justify that criminal war by saying, “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity?” (“Full text: George Bush’s speech to troops,” theguardian.com, Mar. 26, 2003) Maybe the students compared Bush’s religion with another reality: his pre-emptive war’s “gift” caused the deaths of over a million Iraqi citizens, created a million widows and five million orphaned children– left to survive in an infrastructure decimated by America’s “shock and awe” bombs, which also turned some five million Iraqi citizens into refugees. With “Operation Iraqi Freedom’s” parting “blessing” being severe sectarian violence. Bush certainly is a classic example of the use of religion to justify—and camouflage—violence.
There is much more the Harvard students might have talked about and reflected on, and so related to the tragedy of Boston. Including President Barack Obama’s expanded drone warfare that, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, has killed thousands of civilians, including children– and grandmothers– in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. (“Covert Drone War: Tracking CIA drone strikes and other US covert actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia”) Obama has joined his pious predecessor in creating endless enemies, that serves to fuel America’s unending criminal “war on terror”—which provides endless profit for the military/industrial/energy/intelligence complex. Endless war is the new reality of “American exceptionalism.”
“How do we respond to events like these in a way that builds relationships?” A penetrating question posed by the Harvard students. Might the students, some evidently theologically inclined, have discussed and reflected on the reality of Faisal Shahzad, the young man who put a bomb in the center of New York’s Times Square, at 6:30 p.m. on a Saturday night in May of 2010, to inflict a maximum number of casualties and destruction? Shahzad stressed the importance of his reality, in telling Federal District Court Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, “One has to know where I’m coming from.” Judge Cedarbaum had difficulty understanding his reality– where he was “coming from.” “You wanted to injure a lot of people?,” she asked, and added, “Including the children?”—intending to expose his inhumanity. He responded by sharing his reality: “Well, the drone hits Afghanistan and Iraq. They don’t see anybody. They kill women, children. They kill everybody.” (“A Guilty Plea on Plot to Bomb Times Square,” By Benjamin Weiser, The New York Times, June 22, 2010)
“How do we respond to events like these in a way that builds relationships?” An excellent question that invites self-examination. Columnist Glenn Greenwald offers a thought-provoking observation that would help the Harvard students, and many other Americans, in any discussion and reflection on the Boston Marathon bombings. He said, “We need to investigate why there seem to be so many people from so many parts of the world willing to risk their lives or their liberty in order to bring violence to the United States, including to random Americans whom they don’t know.” Why? Greenwald continued, “When [terrorists] are heard, which is rare, about what their motive was, invariably they cite the fact that they became enraged by what Americans are doing to Muslims around the world, to their countries in terms of bombing them, imprisoning them without charges, drones attacking them, interfering in their governments, propping up their dictators, that they feel that they have not only the right, but the duty to attack America back.” (“The Real Questions About the Boston Attack,” billmoyers.com, Apr. 24, 2013) Instead of any real investigative national self-examination that would lead us to America’s imperialistic foreign policy, most mainstream media steadfastly focus on human interest stories about the victims of blowback violence.
“Building relationships?” The Harvard students might have gone to Trinity Church and taken the trouble to reflect on and discuss the statement by Farea Al-muslimi, a Yemeni citizen who testified before a Senate subcommittee hearing on the Obama administration’s targeted killings with drones. “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village,” he said, “one drone strike accomplished in an instant: There is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America. . . . The drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis.” (“Voice from Yemen: Obama’s Drones Stir ‘Growing Hatred of America.” By Jon Queally, staff writer, Common Dreams, Apr. 24, 2013) A New York Times story reported that “it was a rare public hearing on the use of drones,” at which “the Obama administration did not send anyone to testify.” In this story, the Yemeni citizen is also quoted as saying, “Now, however, when they [his friends and neighbors] think of America, they think of the fear they feel at the drones over their heads.” (“Drone Strikes Turn Allies Into Enemies, Yemeni Says,” By Charlie Savage, Apr. 24, 22013)
Once at Trinity Church, the Harvard students could have also questioned if there should be some moral concern about the overwhelming monetary and medical response to the mostly white Boston Marathon bombing victims, compared to the little concern about the austerity bombs going off especially in Boston’s neighborhoods of color— taking a heavy economic and wellness toll and triggering violence? The students’ possible curiosity about this glaring discrepancy might have led them to cross the street to The Community Church of Boston’s Lothrop Auditorium, where, as Boston’s Metro newspaper reported, three local artists have set up “a free exhibit questioning the globally known ‘Boston Strong’ slogan that sprang into popularity in the aftermath of the widely publicized 2013 terror attack.”
If the Harvard students had gone to CCB’s Lothrop Auditorium, they likely would have spoken to the three local artists, Jason Pramas, Darrell Ann Gane-McCalla and Shea Justice. Who would have explained their inspiration for the exhibit, called “Boston Strong?” They are reported to be “troubled by a disparity between media coverage of the victims of last year’s bombing, many of whom are white and live outside of Boston, and media coverage of the victims of ongoing criminal assaults around Boston, many of whom are people of color and live in the city.” Said artist Pramas, “’Forty-seven people have been killed in Boston in the past year due to street violence, and there is no One Fund for them.’” The exhibit includes “the number of those killed by street violence painted over the familiar yellow and blue “Boston Strong” slogan, and about 50 multi-colored candles representing the dead.” (“Boston Strong? Exhibit in Copley questions city’s priorities,” By Morgan Rousseau, www.metro.us/boston, Apr. 16, 2014)
Alas, had the Harvard students shared with The Boston Globe reporter the above kind of reflections about former President Bush’s illegal pre-emptive war against Iraq, and President Obama’s criminal drone warfare, and the racial and other implications of the “Boston Strong?” exhibit, they may not be aware that their comments would never have appeared in The Boston Globe. The Globe, with its repeated editorials, was a cheerleader for Bush’s falsely-based, UN-condemned as illegal, war of choice against Iraq—as were the editorials and columns of many other mainstream media. (See Alberts, “A Trail of American Blood: From the White House to CBS,” Counterpunch, Oct. 31, 2007)
Yet, today, ironically, The Boston Globe has a full-page announcement of having been “AWARDED THE PULITZER PRIZE FOR OUR COVERAGE OF EVENTS WE WISH NEVER HAPPENED” (Apr. 15, 2014)—last year’s Boston Marathon bombings. We know and feel the pain of the Boston Marathon bombings; but we must wonder, at the same time, if this tragedy might not have happened if The Boston Globe—and much of America’s other mainstream media—had done their job as investigative journalists and connected the cause-and-effect dots between Baghdad and Boston, rather than serving as note-takers for America’s corporations’-controlled bi-partisan political status quo.
Vice President Joe Biden is another case in point. Last Tuesday, he came to Boston, to speak at the Day of Remembrance memorial service one year after the Marathon bombings, and turned the attention of his large listening and viewing audience far away from that other reality. As reported, “His voice soaring, Biden said that when the Marathon is run again next Monday, ‘You will send a resounding message around the world to the terrorists that we will never yield, we will never cower. American will never, ever, ever stand down,” he declared. “We are Boston. We are America. We respond, we endure, we overcome, and we own the finish line! God bless you all, and may God protect our troops.” (“At tribute, Marathon bombing victims, survivors honored,” By John R. Ellement and Martin Finucane, The Boston Globe, Apr. 15, 2014; “Boston Marathon bombings: ‘We endure,’ Joe Biden says at memorial,” By Alana Semuels, latimes.com, Apr. 15 2014; “Joe Biden calls bombing survivors inspiring,” www.wmur.com, Apr. 15, 2014)) And Biden’s “soaring voice” was accompanied by sustained applause from the audience.
“We own the finish line!” Our Vice President was saying that America owns the world. That “God” is on our side, marching in lockstep with our troops. That America is exceptional, and superior, and the envy of other nations. Like a “city set on a hill.” Biden embodies America’s delusionary—and destructive–“exceptional” reality.
A terrible and tragic disservice is done to the victims and families of the Boston Marathon bombings, and to countless other human beings, in the political– and often Christian—perpetuation of America’s “exceptional” reality. Such national narcissism takes everyone far from those close to home, who justify and camouflage—or prayerfully accommodate– violence in the name of “God” and country. Which will only continue to create blowback violence on the streets of America.
Any celebration of Easter should include Christian leaders and their congregations speaking reality to political power, rather than serving as chaplains of the status quo. For, any Easter worth celebrating deals with the reality of the “Good Fridays” our government has inflicted, and continues to inflict, on other human beings in our name. Whether on Boylston Street, or Pakistan’s countryside, or in Boston’s neighborhoods, to hear each other’s laughter and to see each other’s tears is to experience each other’s humanness. Therein lies what is truly strong.
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care. His book, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. It is available on Amazon.com. His e-mail address is: wm.alberts @gmail.com.