Scary Fairy Tales – TIME and the Times Square Bomber story

Posted by Irresponsibility

Reading TIME’s “Special Report” ‘The Bombing Suspect’s Tale’ leaves me feeling a hausfrau whose hubby goes out Friday and reappears Tuesday, reeking of Wild Turkey, with a black eye, and a bimbo in tow: furious, insulted, on the verge of throwing crockery. I know the media, like an alcoholic, can’t help itself. Straight stories, facts, are dry. Why not slip in a few shots of supposition, just to liven things up?

Let’s start with the title: ‘The Bombing Suspect’s Tale’. Coincidence? Or a conscious echo of the Canterbury Tales? After all, medieval Christians knew a thing or two about the Muslim menace.

Move on to the lede – the first two sentences begin with “if”. Quick refresher for those who didn’t have the ‘news pyramid’ drilled into them: news stories are supposed to start with the essential information, then gradually expand to include peripheral information, or editorialising. A sentence beginning with “if” – as in “If you wanted to do a lot of damage with a well-rigged car bomb…” and “If the bomb planted in a green 1993 Nissan Pathfinder SUV on the evening of May 1 had exploded” – makes for great water cooler conversation, but does not belong in what is allegedly a factual account.

The first sentence: “If you wanted to do a lot of damage…” makes unwarranted assumptions about motive. Who’s to say what the intention of the alleged bomber was? Maybe it was to “do a lot of damage”, maybe it was just to put the wind up sponge-skulled reporters. In any case, it is not the magazine’s place \ to make assumptions. “If the bomb planted… had exploded” (which would have made a fairer, though still ostentatiously irresponsible, opener) grudgingly admits that, in fact, all hell didn’t break lose. Rather than continuing with facts, however, the article intro veers back into hyperbole, quoting some retired New York cop blabbing about how bad things might have been. It concludes with the breathtaking non sequiteur: “A TIME reporter familiar with the ravages of car bombs in Baghdad describes how victims appeared to be naked because a fireball melted their clothing onto the surface of their skin.” Nice to see the Baghdad bomb victims getting a couple of column-centimetres, but the remark is breathtakingly irrelevant.

The key thing about this lede is that it has no relationship to reality. It is baseless, hysterical surmise that doesn’t belong a news magazine. Sure, things might get ugly if a car bomb goes off in Times Square. Things might also get ugly if an asteroid hits the earth, if a giant tidal wave submerges Los Angeles, or if the Ku Klux Klan kidnaps Obama. We live in a dangerous world. An infinite number of bad things could happen at any given moment. Until they do, they aren’t news, they’re fantasy; and dream-sequences belong in Disney movies, not the pages of TIME.

Nevertheless, the article continues in the vein of a shabby elevator-pitch for a movie about the American Dream – complete with goodies, baddies, touchingly unexpected moments of understanding and the triumph of the ol’ red white and blue over the nebulous forces of darkness. The goodies, it transpires, are:

A resident network of people who watch one another’s backs. On one corner, Lance Orton sells T-shirts at his stall; across the street is fellow Vietnam vet Duane Jackson, a handbag and scarf vendor. Rallis Gialaboukis has his hot-dog cart next to Jackson. And then there’s Bullet, the homeless guy who darts from stall to stall, chatting everyone up.

Doesn’t your heart just swell at the thought of a plucky, picaresque, ethnically diverse cast of New York nobodies who save the indifferent walls of the glass canyon from crumbling in? Lance Orton is, let me guess, a white working class guy, probably a Yankees fan. He has a couple of kids and an ex-wife he supports selling “I (heart) NY” tee-shirts to passing Japanese tourists. His buddy Duane is black. Sometimes, they crack a beer together and reminisce about ‘Nam. Rallis is Greek, big-bellied, with a comical accent but a heart of gold. As for Bullet, “the homeless guy”? Bullet doesn’t mumble and curse, or gesticulate with dirty hands and brown-bag wrapped bottle of Olde E. He isn’t mentally ill. He even smells okay. He’s just a regular guy (albeit Negro) down on his luck, trying to get back on his feet. Thankfully these drops in the melting pot noticed the Pathfinder “already conspicuous because it was illegally parked in a bus lane”. The cops appeared and “the city that never sleeps had one more reason to thank its street-level heroes who always seem to stay wide awake.” Well gee whiz, god bless and apple pie and ice cream. How convenient all these colourful, yet quintessentially American folk, were standing around doing heart-warmingly enterprising things, so they happened to be in the right place at the right time to note the would-be car bomb. Not that these aren’t real people, or that they didn’t see the truck, but what about the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of passers-by who could just as realistically be credited with noting the suspicious vehicle? How many dozens of loiterers did the reporters buttonhole before they found the perfect blend of age, race and ethnicity to turn this part of the story into a giant warm fuzzy about the beauty and goodness of the USA?

Next up for the hero treatment are cops and FBI. “Combating terrorism demands the highest skills of law-enforcement agencies,” we are informed. “And in the case of the Times Square bomber, those agencies did their job.” But only just. After a paragraph of patting cops on the back for being able to trace licence plates (oh well done boys!) the article admits: “Still, he nearly got away. The FBI apparently lost track of him.” Seems they’d put his name on a no-fly list but alleged plotter Shahzad boarded an Emirates flight – and that airline “had not yet noted the updated no-fly list.” This is interesting. Given the psychotic level of airline security paranoia I’d assume stuff like monitoring and enforcing the no-fly list is pretty important. But no, sounds like it is administered by harried, disinterested airline staff. Not exactly confidence inspiring.

This, however, is a Good News story, and therefore not the place for inquiry. Much better to move quickly on to the real problem: the nasty man whose “life opened him to a host of potentially dangerous influences”. A fine phrase that is. Is there anyone, anywhere, whose life hasn’t opened them to ‘potentially dangerous influences’? TIME takes as read that anyone who grew up in Pakistan is a potential terrorist. What baffles the editorial team (so warm to the social usefulness of homeless guys and Vietnam vets) is what went wrong with Shahzad whose “journey could have been that of any other immigrant in search of the American Dream.” He came to the US to study! He got an MBA! His wife is an American citizen! They bought a house in, “an almost picture-book American suburb with white picket fences… with kids trotting off to school buses and golden retrievers prancing on perfectly trimmed front yards”! What more could a man want?

Maybe to live someplace where, neighbours don’t tell reporters his wife’s “traditional dress… didn’t bother us”? Nevertheless, racism apparently doesn’t incite people to terrorism, as long as it happens in white picket fence suburbs. Poverty, though? That’s another story. Insofar as ‘The Bombing Suspect’s Tale’ suggests a motive for Shahzad’s alleged bomb attempt it is this:

The couple apparently could not keep up with mortgage payments and other loans. In June, Shahzad quit his job, and their house went into foreclosure. The couple, who had two children, moved to Sheridan Street in Bridgeport, a neighborhood surrounded by factories and occupied, as Bridgeport mayor Bill Finch says, by “working-class, working-poor people.” The homes have metal, not picket, fences; several have graffiti sprayed on them.
Last summer, Shahzad traveled to Pakistan with his wife and children. There, the U.S. government says, he attended a militant training camp….

Let’s recap: Pakistan-born man accesses the American Dream, when the Dream is taken away and he has to move in next door to – shudder – “poor people” it sparks a fury. Not socio-religious or ideological hatred, but the sulky spite of a kid whose toy gets taken away. Childlike, he lashes out, only to be foiled by the efforts of those who, despite also being denied the Dream, have maturely accepted their place as the dregs of the Great Society. One problem: the disgruntled citizen blowing shit up is not a new story, nor by any means exclusive to people born in Pakistan. Tim McVeigh, the Unibomber, the DC sniper, the Virginia Tech killer, the Columbine boys, any of the dozens of idiots with guns who, each year, blaze their way into a fleeting moment of newspaper infamy because they’re pissed off, disappointed, fed up.

What makes Shahzad’s alleged plot any different? What makes it terrorism, not just ass-holism? TIME marches brusquely past this question, stating:

Given the mayhem that could have resulted from his actions, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Shahzad’s aims were consistent with those of the global jihadi movement. The bomb in Times Square, it looks pretty clear, was not the work of some addlebrained nut job. It was terrorism: an attempt, for political reasons, to kill Americans. Lots of them.

Hard for whom, exactly, to “avoid the conclusion that Shahzad’s aims were consistent with those of global jihad”? What does that even mean? If a kid throws a water balloon at a cop, is that consistent with the aims of global jihad? Sure, if you read it that way. Equally, America’s policy of unconditional support for Israel is seen by many as encouraging the aims of global jihad – does that mean large swathes of our politicians should lock themselves up as terrorists? Arguably yes. But just because something could be true doesn’t mean it is. News stories are supposed to deal with what is; not ‘what might be’.

Perhaps it is naïve to expect better in a country where half the population considers Fox News a legitimate information source. But it is still alarming. Journalism inherently involves a certain level of subjectivity springing from the culture, values and point of view of the journalist, but that does not mean news reporting should be excused from the charge to be accurate, informative and to deal with reality, not make-believe.

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