By the end of the week, I found myself wondering if a better society wouldn’t have kept Boston open and shuttered CNN. Did we really shut down an entire city to catch one wounded boy? Have we overextended the First Amendment in granting the press effective immunity from responsibility even as we become a nation intent on revoking the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth? There’s a temptation to read the scenes of deserted streets and paramilitary police as teasers for the sort of incipient totalitarianism, and maybe it is, but as an aficionado of conspiracy literature, I find that this analysis tends inevitably toward the conspiracist’s biggest flaw, which is to over-read intention and to presume that history has a narrative.
If you asked me to describe in one word a culture that dispatches the black helicopters and assault vehicles in response to a dyadic pair of wayward, violent youth, I’d say, decadent. London kept the dance halls open during the Blitz, but Boston shut Fenway because of a pipe bomb. There’s some truth to the claim that Americans are uniquely deferential to authority and prone to authoritarian solutions, but we’ve also become a culture that’s largely adopted the values of an aristocracy: we want perfect safety and perfect comfort, although we’ll complain mightily about the cost of service these days. For all the John McCains looking up from their thin soup to demand that we Torquemadize the surviving brother in order to discover whether or not this was all part of Cobra Commander’s plot, the predominant sentiment behind the desire to prevent the kid from “lawyering up” and fitting him for concrete boots instead seems to me to be that putting him to trial would just be such a bother, and so expensive.
For all the praetorian hoo-hah on display all day in Boston, the thing that broke the case was some dude going outside to burn a square once the cops gave everyone the all clear. What purpose, then, did the lockdown serve? Well, yinz ever hear of a little thing called The Society of Spectacle? A culture of universal surveillance is a karaoke civilization; the lockdown of Boston was demanded by its own image; CNN’s et al.’s fake reporting wasn’t just the result of an immense, confused official response, but also in a very real sense its cause. Not for nothing does the footage resemble an action flick. The line between reality and fantasy is blurring, yes, but which is really shading into the other?
And this, too, is why the subsequent investigation and trial seem so odd to so many Americans. It reeks of anticlimax. How many more goodbyes do we have to endure before Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellan pack the Bagginses off from Middle Earth? Isn’t there something better on? One reason Brave New World holds up better than 1984 is that Huxley had the good humor to pick a winner, not a boot stomping on a human face forever, but orgy-porgy; not violence and death as a threat, but violence and death as entertainment. Hey, do you guys wonder why something as basically dull as The Hunger Games is so extraordinarily popular. It’s not because it’s fantastical. It’s because it’s recognizable.
We can no more tolerate a plodding police investigation and boring trial than we can stand a sensibly edited fight scene in a movie. It isn’t by accident that the fools on cable news say that a story is “fast moving.” Civil libertarians will argue that we turned Boston into a kind of war zone, but no, we turned it into a soundstage, and we turned the population into extras for those emotional establishing shots of regular citizens gazing through plate glass as the Avengers zoom by. So, you know, look: Lindsey Graham isn’t the villain, here. Actually, he’s the nerd telling everyone to sit down during the credits ‘cause they’re gonna miss the post-credit villain reveal!