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04/17/2013 09:45 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2013

Boston: Beyond Tea Party Politics

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Less than 48 hours since the violence in Boston on Monday, and with scant and conflicting evidence, the divination of who is responsible has opened up significant political fissures, but also many bridges. The right wing points to al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorists, or indeed anyone ethnically, culturally or linguistically different from their white American heartland, and then blames Obama. The left (outside of the U.S., at least) doesn't necessarily implicate al-Qaeda, but points out the lack of attention given to similar atrocities wrought daily on civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of U.S. foreign policy. And then blames Obama. The conspiracy theorists ... well ... they just blame Obama.

Blaming Obama for everything -- the fact that cats have fleas, or that elephants possess tusks, or that it rained in Tokyo last Thursday -- has become such a national (and maybe global) sport that it scarcely needs rehearsing here, apart from the fact that opposition to Obama's second term is more grounded in socio-cultural prejudice than it is in political deliberation.

Seeking some respite from the ideological caterwauling, and trying to make sense of indiscriminate political violence, I reached for the late Gore Vidal's Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace. Penned in 2003 by a giant among American men of letters, it's a brief but profound read, based on a collection of essays written for Vanity Fair. Vidal's main material is interviews and exchanges of letters with death row inmate Timothy McVeigh, who was executed in 2001 for his part in the 1993 Oklahoma City bombing, the deadliest attack on American soil apart from 9/11. Vidal analyzes the emergence of American domestic right-wing "terrorism" as the result of two major changes in U.S. politics since WWII.

The first is the shift from an isolationist to interventionist role in foreign policy. Truman dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan in 1945 and, subsequently, the American foreign policy psyche -- like a dog catching its first rabbit -- has been consumed by an insatiable and almost instinctive bloodlust. The Cold War is littered with examples of American overreach; the forays in Iraq and Afghanistan are but its latest manifestations. The second issue is that an oligarchy unquestionably runs American politics: senators are in the pockets of lobbyists, giant corporations have rotted regulatory authorities from the inside out, and the choice between presidential candidates is -- with Congress paid off -- effectively limited to two equally idle-handed technocrats able to be put to work by the devil of capitalism. Corporations enjoy perpetual war because it is good for business; chimerical political administrations prefer perpetual war because, in Chomsky's words, it manufactures consent, largely through fear. This fear is happily channeled, through the medium of advertizing, into mindless consumption, thus keeping the corporations afloat.

American foreign policy, and its corporate underpinning, is at the crux of the argument of the left: America thus reaps what it sows, and what happened in Boston pales into comparison to what happens daily in Basra or Baghdad. C'est la vie, c'est la guerre. If the right are correct and this is a case of Islamic terrorism, this might be a compelling argument for the left to make. But, either way, it demonstrates a lamentable lack of humanity from the left: a political understanding of the Boston bombings - which killed three civilians, including an 8-year-old child -- can't be reduced to tallying a bodycount on either side. Indeed, this inhumane analysis -- directly inversed -- is rather more the preserve of the argument of the political right-wing: if Islamic terrorists take lives on American soil, then this justifies the taking of even more lives on (Islamic) foreign soil. The right, for their part, are ignorant of any humane political position -- save for interfering in reproductive rights -- that doesn't entail exhorting the avarice of capital accumulation at whatever human cost.

The alternative scenario, that this is the work of homegrown, domestic terrorists, makes the argument of the left -- that America deserves what it gets for its foreign policy -- somewhat moot. But it also presents problems for the right. If Gore Vidal's analysis is accurate, then the alienation caused by capitalism -- and the concomitant hatred for the poor, the voiceless and the unde(r)served -- is the tinderbox of extremism. And this bothers the conspiracy theorists, since social and economic justice is a trade-off of something else. Conspiratonal libertarians know the trade-off is not security or liberty, but they haven't figured out what else it might be.

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