Some weeks, I sit down to write this weekly wrapup, and find that there isn't that much to talk about, because nothing much happened that particular week.
This isn't one of those weeks.
In fact, too much happened in the past week to adequately pay enough attention to it all. We've had multiple stories this week which, in a normal week, would have dominated the headlines and been the subject of extended discussion. Most of these stories have either been pushed to the side, and will never get the attention they deserve, while a few stories have merely been postponed, and will eventually get the focus they have been denied this past week.
The big story, obviously, is the one that is still unfolding as I type this. Two men reportedly planted bombs at the Boston Marathon's finish line in an act of terrorism. The horror of this tragedy has hung over the week as a dark pall. Yesterday, photos and videos of the suspects were made public, and by last night one of them was dead and one on the run. Boston was locked down for the entire day -- an incredible statement, really, when you consider what "locking down" a city of millions involves. The manhunt ended around 9 p.m. Eastern time with the suspect reportedly alive and in custody.
Today, with the identification of the two men, a whole lot of theories about the alleged perpetrators and the reason for the attack were proven wrong. It was not Arabs, it was not Saudis, it was not some "lone wolf" right-wing homegrown domestic terrorist. If the information we have now proves correct, it was two Chechnyans. Which, quite obviously, wasn't really on much of anybody's radar screen.
It wasn't just the theorists and armchair speculators who got some major things wrong this week, it was also many journalists. In the never-ending quest for the scoop to end all scoops, many news organizations got ahead of the facts. This really isn't all that surprising, because this sort of thing has been happening pretty much since the dawn of journalism, in fact. It's certainly been around since the advent of the 24/7 cable news cycle -- CNN was just as wrong back in 1995 in their reporting on the Oklahoma City bombing as they were this week. But I don't mean to pick on CNN, as there were plenty of news reports this week which later were shown to be false, and I don't believe any news organization can honestly say they got all their reporting completely correct throughout the whole week.
Reporting the news is, at heart, taking the chaos of real-life events and presenting them as a story. The story-telling part is really what the news is all about, stripped to its core. When you're trying to tell a story without knowing crucial parts of it, the human impulse is to fill in the gaps while still keeping the storyline plausible. This, almost inevitably in a situation like we experienced this week, leads to jumping to conclusions and making sweeping assumptions.
I've been cautioning everyone all week long to not give in to the impulse of letting imaginations run wild. As the facts come in, there will be more than enough time for analysis. Because this is true, this is really all I have to say about Boston this week. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be inside the cordon and be exposed to such a massive manhunt. My thoughts are not only with the victims and their loved ones, but also with those affected by the ongoing and unfolding story. The citizens crouching in fear in their homes, the police and other frontline responders responsible for bringing an end to this fear, and all the rest of America glued to their television sets, radios, or computer screens, awaiting the final outcome.
Because it has been such an extraordinary week in the news and in politics, I'm going to skip over our normal format and not hand out my "awards" this week, because somehow celebrating and castigating Democrats seems a little... I don't know, "sophomoric"?... in the midst of the unfolding situation in Boston.
I will say that the most heartening thing I heard all week was one guy who decided to do something positive and proactive. It's a small thing, really, but it is also the story of how one man decided to do what he could to avoid ugliness later. Jaimie Muehlhausen registered the domain name "bostonmarathonconspiracy.com" and put the following message up on it:
I BOUGHT THIS DOMAIN TO KEEP SOME CONSPIRACY THEORY KOOK FROM OWNING IT.
PLEASE KEEP THE VICTIMS OF THIS EVENT AND THEIR FAMILIES IN YOUR THOUGHTS.
In an email to the site Salon.com, he explained his action:
Sadly, one of my first thoughts was that it would only be a matter of hours before a certain group of people would begin to say it was a government conspiracy; an act of terror on our own people for political gain. It's sickening, but take a look at the massive numbers of 9/11 conspiracy nuts -- people who think Bush and the gang took down the twin towers and ended the lives of nearly 3000 people so we could go to war. The heartless and sick Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists who think the Obama administration killed kindergartners to bolster the gun control debate. And there are plenty of others. Well, I was wrong. It didn't take hours -- it took minutes.
As I said, this is a small thing in the midst of a very large tragedy, but one that deserves applause nonetheless.
Volume 254 (4/19/13)
We're also going to dispense with our normal "Talking Points" format here. Instead of seven suggestions for how Democrats should be speaking about things, we are going to review seven stories that, in a more-normal week, would have been the main subject being discussed in the political world. The Boston story was so important and so large that it overshadowed all these other stories. As I said before, some of them will eventually get their chance on center stage as bills work their way through Congress, but some of them will never get the attention they deserved.
For now, we're going to set the Boston situation aside, and take a look at what would have been the big stories of the week had Boston not dominated the headlines all week long.
In an eerie parallel to the events immediately following 9/11, letters containing poison arrived in Washington addressed to a senator and President Obama. They were unconnected to the main terrorist attack. It was just a coincidence.
The crime was almost immediately solved, and a suspect was in custody with breathtaking speed. But because Boston had happened, we didn't get front-page headlines screaming "Elvis Impersonator Tries to Poison Obama!" The man behind the attack is apparently a disturbed individual who sent the poison ricin to his senator and to the White House. While not on the same level as bombing a sporting event, this too was an act of terrorism.
Because of the coincidental timing, this story will forever be an afterthought, in the same way the anthrax attacks were overshadowed by 9/11. But it is a reminder that more than one disturbed individual at a time can launch terrorist attacks. If Boston had not happened, we would be getting the same sort of in-depth coverage about why a man would try to kill two politicians, and what his twisted motivations for doing so were. And Elvis jokes. Because nobody was hurt in his attack, you just know there would be lots and lots of Elvis jokes circulating by now.
Sadly, when the news broke of who the Boston perpetrators were, a few opportunistic politicians began jumping to unfounded conclusions on the subject of immigration.
This was supposed to be the topic of the week, in the political world. The "Gang of Eight" unveiled their comprehensive immigration reform bill this week, after Marco Rubio appeared on seven Sunday political shows to introduce his effort to convince his own party to go along with it.
That's pretty impressive right there, since a "full Ginsburg" is only defined as going on five Sunday shows. Rubio, in fact, is the first to do seven, meaning that we either have to update the term ("Ginsburg plus two"?) or scrap it altogether in favor of the new term "a full Rubio."
Wonky semantics aside, Rubio made his case last Sunday, and he made it with one particular audience in mind: Tea Partiers in the House. "Look," he was essentially saying to his fellow Republicans, "it's not amnesty, and it's tough, and Republicans should get behind it because it is better than the situation we have now -- to say nothing of our party's future electoral prospects if we don't do this." Again, absent the Boston massacre, this would have been one of the biggest subjects of the week. As it was, the Republican response to the new bill has been mostly muted, mostly ignored, or (today) mostly off on bizarre tangents.
How strongly are House Tea Partiers going to fight Rubio's plan? So far, the right-wing media has not been very supportive. The radio talk show hosts and the usual suspects on television have mostly been going with their default position, which is: "changing any immigration law in any way whatsoever equals amnesty, period, end of sentence."
Hearings have been called in the Senate committee responsible for immigration, and even the Gang of Eight knows that their plan is going to be attacked with amendments -- many of which will be designed to kill the entire bill. It's going to be a long hard fight, and we're just in the middle of Round One. There are Republican hardliners in the Senate, but seeing as how four GOP senators are already on board, it is indeed conceivable that a bill could be passed with bipartisan support.
The House, however, is going to be a different story. As the news from Boston fades, it will be very interesting to see how the House Republicans (including the leadership) start speaking about the proposed Senate bill. Will the language get ugly? Will extremist statements be disavowed? Will there be enough Republican House members to kill any sort of immigration plan, no matter what it looks like? These will be the important questions at the end of this process.
Gun control defeat
I've been skeptical that gun control was going to pass this year, even after the tragedy at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut. But I have to admit, I did expect -- at the very least -- some sort of watered-down improvement of the background check system to pass the Senate. This was not to be, however. The bipartisan plan went down to defeat. But even if every Democrat had voted for it, it still would have been successfully filibustered. Republicans consider gun control to be a safe issue for them -- they feel free to vote against it because they think their constituents will back them up. Democrats are much more conflicted, considering gun control to be an issue that can get them voted out of office (see: 1990s). I was impressed that the Democrats got the number of votes that they did, and disappointed about the Democrats that voted against the measure. I was disappointed to see even reasonable improvements to background checks fail.
But one thing I take away from the effort is that President Obama seems more impressive than at any point in his first term on the issue, because he was not afraid to fail. In his first term, he always had an eye on his re-election chances, and shied away from several large and contentious issues (immigration, for one). He was, to be blunt, afraid to fail. This time, he was not.
Obama knew that banning assault weapons was likely to be a bridge too far. He knew the chances for success were dim. But he pushed it anyway, because he thought it was the right thing to do. When the entire gun control effort looked like it was drifting away, he began hammering on it for all he was worth. He shamed the Senate into holding the votes in the first place (Harry Reid would likely have been quite happy to have the whole thing die in committee). He knew he wasn't going to get most of what he was pressing Congress to do, but he didn't back away.
That is a point worth making. Yes, gun control failed this time around. It will likely not be brought up again until we've had another congressional election. But Obama did get the votes he asked for. And he did (if you'll pardon the expression) stick to his guns, and not back down even though the most likely outcome was failure. That is a welcome change, and I will be interested to see if he takes this approach on other contentious issues in the future.
Yes, we tortured
An extraordinary report came out this week which should lay to rest any questions anyone still has on the subject. Yes, America tortured people. Yes, we threw out the rules of warfare and made up our own, complete with legalistic justifications. From the very top, our leaders decided to torture people. The Bush administration began and enacted these policies, but that doesn't let the Obama administration off the hook either, since Obama decided to just ignore the subject and hope everyone would just forget about it.
This report deserved a lot more attention than it has so far received. Mostly, because this was done in all our names. We all bear the responsibility for losing our moral compass in such a fashion. We did not conduct "enhanced interrogation," we tortured people. Let's call it what it is from now on. Let's toss the Orwellian language down the memory hole (if that isn't circular logic, somehow). We all need to come to terms with what was done, and that begins by calling it what it is, whether you support the idea or are aghast at it. From now on, you can either be pro-torture or anti-torture. Because that's the subject at hand. America torturing people.
Once again, this story would certainly have gotten a lot more attention if the Boston story weren't dominating the news. A chemical fertilizer plant exploded into a giant fireball which leveled a goodly portion of the small town in Texas where it was situated.
The death count will rise as more information is known, but the pictures were of complete devastation and the blast itself was measurable on the Richter scale. As of now, nobody really has any idea of what led to this disaster. Was it lax safety oversight? Was it an unavoidable accident? Was it actually a crime perpetrated by someone? We just don't know.
Coming, as it did, after the news from Boston, and after the news of the ricin attack, the news broke on an already-numb public, that's about the only thing you can say with certainty as of this point. Searching for clues may prove to be fruitless, as the factory has now been described as "no longer in existence" due to the severity of the explosion. We may never fully know what happened. If America hadn't already been focusing on the victims in Boston, the victims in Texas would be what we'd now be focusing on. Because no matter what the chain of events which led to the explosion, they are indeed victims of a tragedy.
Elsewhere in Texas, arrests were made of a husband and wife in the murders of multiple people in the justice system. The man arrested was also, at one time, part of the same justice system. This was not some white supremacist prison gangbanger, this was a disgruntled former justice of the peace who apparently got caught stealing computer monitors.
This has all the hallmarks of a true crime story the media would have been all over, had they not had other stories to cover this week. "Ex-judge goes crazy, takes his revenge" would have been the front-page news. The media may get a second chance on this one, since he'll obviously have to be tried in a court of law.
GOP washes its hands of Mark Sanford
To round out the week with some politics, we had the story of Mark Sanford's continuing meltdown on the campaign trail. This, in case you're wondering, is Mark "Appalachian Trail" Sanford, who is trying to crawl back into politics by winning a special House race against Stephen Colbert's sister.
The news broke that Sanford is due in court two days after the election, to answer charges that he broke a legal agreement with his ex-wife, and trespassed on her property to watch the Super Bowl with his kids. Sanford also felt fine with putting his young sons on stage with him and his mistress on the night he won the primary for the special House race.
The Republican Party decided it had had enough, when this news broke, and announced it was pulling all its money out of the race. While this seems like good news for Democrats, here's some cold water on such exuberance -- the Republicans are likely to wind up with this seat no matter what happens. If Elizabeth Colbert Busch wins the special election, the chances of her holding onto it in 2014 are pretty dim (when some Republican not named "Mark Sanford" runs against her, assumably). Six of ten voters in the district went for Romney, so it's pretty much a Republican stronghold. Sure, we'd love to see Colbert's sister in the House, but even if it happens, it likely won't be for very long. The Republicans have stopped wasting money on Sanford, but even without their big bucks, he still may win. Either way, Republicans aren't all that worried about this seat in the long run.
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