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The Flag Flies at Half-Staff

by HOWARD LISNOFF

There is a cemetery in rural Massachusetts where the U.S. flag flew at half-mast on Saturday. Cemeteries in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts have both a haunting and historical character. Their graves are often stained from centuries of wear and mark the places where people often lie long ago forgotten. A person cannot be farther from Boston than in rural Western Massachusetts, a place that is set among the beautifully rolling hills between the Taconic and Berkshire ranges where Massachusetts meets New York State. Spring has finally come here with daffodil, crocus, budding maple, and the fire yellow of forsythia. It is good to be alive among these hills in spring even within the deep grip of grief.

The insanity of contemporary society once again unleashed its wrath on the streets, this time in Boston. And as if unbounded grief needed reinforcement, at least 14 died in West, Texas with unfathomable destruction from a chemical fertilizer blast that has also left scores injured and missing. And if Newtown, Connecticut and this week’s vote against gun control in the U.S. Senate could be factored in, then the U.S. is now caught in a perfect storm of mayhem and despair.

Brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev allegedly set off two lethal bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon killing 3 and maiming hundreds of innocent bystanders. The Marathon is held on Patriots Day, a holiday that commemorates the spirit of the victorious rebels of the American Revolution. It is a spirited and unparalleled holiday. The brothers later engaged an M.I.T. police officer and killed him in a hail of gunfire, and then brought their trail of mayhem and death to an exponential level with a gunfight reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde in Watertown, Massachusetts, only miles away from the scene of the Marathon bombings and M.I.T. murder.

And as if scripted out of a scenario from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, all of Boston went into a self-imposed lockdown with Watertown experiencing the door-to-door searches for the survivor of the earlier gunfight, the younger of the two brothers, Dzhokhar, who was holding up in a boat in a backyard of the city and was finally discovered by the homeowner who happened to see blood on the torn shrink wrapping that had sealed the boat for the winter months. If the surreal would not give up its claim on the scenes just described, residents came out to wildly cheer as police left the city, with Dzhokhar transported by ambulance seriously injured to a local hospital.

What has gone so terribly wrong here? A careful reading of our history reveals that the government vigorously supported the religious fundamentalist zealots of the mujahideen from the presidential administrations of Jimmy Carter through George H.W. Bush, before casting them off to hone their designs against the U.S. following the First Gulf War in 1991 when the U.S.  established a military presence in Saudi Arabia to conduct its short war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And it may be that the elder Tsarnaev became angry and alienated enough, and under the influence of the radical fundamentalist elements that have been spawned by the unending War on Terror, that he planned to visit mayhem and death on the streets of Boston and its suburbs? Tamerlan was known to the F.B.I., having been  questioned by the F.B.I in response to a request by the Russian government in 2011. The next year he traveled to both Chechnya and Dagestan. But in 2011 the F.B.I. did not view him as a risk for “terrorism activity” (“Investigators Dig for Roots of Bomb Suspects’ Radicalization,” The New York Times, April 21, 2013).

And in West, Texas on Wednesday an explosion and fire at West Fertilizer Company leveled a wide swath of that town in scenes reminiscent of the blast that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995. (There is no suspicious motive in the Texas explosion at this writing.) In West, Texas, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration was nowhere is sight to fulfill its duty to inspect workplaces where dangerous chemicals are routinely used. Indeed, with only slightly over 2,000 agents, O.S.H.A. routinely only investigates sites where unionized workers are bold enough to risk becoming whistle-blowers.

With the union movement all but decimated by the globalized economy, and Texas a proudly right-to-work state, there were no whistles to alert anyone to the potential for the devastation and death and horror of last Wednesday. And in any case, how could the nation comprehend the deaths in West, Texas when only 2 days after terror visited the streets of Boston?

The horrific scenes of the past week leave lingering questions:

* Is U.S. foreign, domestic, and military policy still caught in the lethal tangle of blowback for its support for radical fundamentalists in the 1970s and 1980s and the unending War on Terror?

* Are the deaths and injuries of the innocent less important from a workplace explosion than from a nefarious plot at a sporting event?

* Have the horrible deaths of innocent children, teachers, and a school administrator in Newtown, Connecticut been lost in fleeting images as just another media event?

* Is there a moral compass with which the U.S. political system operates when it comes to the proliferation of firearms?

* Will the criminal justice system be reduced to chaos in seeking only revenge for the heinous massacre on the streets of Boston, or will we learn something as a nation about why horror is repeatedly visited on our streets?

Mahatma Gandhi said that “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” It does not take great powers of deduction to know that is where we find ourselves as a nation.

The flag flies at half-staff over the graves of past generations in rural Massachusetts far from the shattered streets and lives of Boston and its suburbs. The dead have a claim to justice. We have a right to truth and peace.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He can be reached at howielisnoff@gmail.com.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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