Friday, April 09, 2010

Can you yell “theater!” in a crowded fire?

Perhaps we will get to watch this scene unfold on live television: It will be a 20-year-old schizophrenic with his finger on the trigger of a portable nuclear device that somehow got misplaced during the Cold War.

This attention-seeking kid will be full of sweet red wine, homemade speed and zealotry. As his hostages weep and beg for life, he’ll rant relentlessly for the benefit of the little camera and microphone hooked to a computer, sending his doomsday message to the whole world, via live news on television. After laughing like a bad actor in a cheap horror flick, he’ll blow Beirut, or Buenos Aires, or Baltimore off the map.

Yes, one day a sicko's awareness of the camera may kill us all.

More and more we are seeing news stories that are tantamount to stunts staged for willing cameras. While it’s fashionable these days to scold the media for their tasteless and excessive coverage of certain events, it’s not all their fault. The stories they encounter, in some cases, have been planned and perpetrated by people who are good at planting a story. Other times, maybe the press is in on the scam.

A precedent setter in this area occurred 30 years ago, with the cooperation that developed between the TV networks and the Iranian “students,” who demonstrated on a daily basis in front of the American embassy during the hostage crisis (1979 – 81).

Now we know that much of the feverish chanting and fist waving was done on cue. Now we know the camera shots were pushed in tight, because the angry horde yelling, “Death to America!” into the networks’ lenses and microphones was often only a dozen souls deep.

Over the years since, we’ve seen a steady stream of publicity stunts, press releases, and photo ops presented as news. It’s so routinely done now that we don’t question it. But is should be noted that most of the news we see has been portered to the press, rather than the press finding it on its own.

The 20-year-old wired to the bomb-in-briefcase has seen what celebrity has been heaped on sullen bombers. Maybe he just wants to be feared by people who ignored his suffering, and remembered by the survivors.

Who knows? Maybe he’ll be a terrorist from Palestine and his hostages will be Jews. Maybe he’ll be a anti-abortionist and his hostages will be doctors. Maybe he’ll be a former alter boy and his hostages will be priests.

As you read this he may be armed to the teeth, posing in front of a full-length mirror, practicing his final rant and his quick-draw, like poor Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” (1976).

“Are you talking to me?”


Yes, our wannabee Travis Bickle is hearing a voice in his head. It’s the Goddess of Payback is a Bitch talking to him, like she has counseled other violent maniacs. At the end of Martin Scorsese’s brilliant film the director has the press misunderstanding Bickle’s bloody suicide run and making him into a hero. Or, since it made a good story, did it not matter what he really was up to?

No doubt, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh saw himself as a hero. The suicidal high-jackers of 9/11 had to have believed they were heroes, too. Likewise, even old Charlie Manson was a man on a mission.

The Christian Militia types coming out of the woodwork today probably see themselves as soldiers for a righteous cause. Heroes.

The angry anti-government firestorm being stoked by some in politics today could eventually flush out a few more Travis-like poseurs from the shadows. Will the lure of celebrity via the camera be irresistible to a few of them?

Don’t you wonder if the modern press could muster enough common sense to collectively ignore the dangerous player in the first paragraph, if it became clear that its coverage was truly throwing more fuel on the fire?

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