Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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April 04, 2009

When really bad things happen, plenty of us go looking for our own personal connection. Here's mine: my Allie comes from a small Morgan farm not far from Binghamton, New York, and her breeder teaches at SUNY Binghamton.

I really don't need to "send to know for whom the bell tolls." I know it's tolling for me. But the personal connection makes it a little more comprehensible. For a moment I can imagine an "armed gunman" (in my imagination it's always a guy) walking into, say, the Steamship Authority terminal in Vineyard Haven and opening fire. Or maybe (this is even easier to imagine) walking into a church or party or shop where many of those present are Brazilian and opening fire.

But when I read commentary that lays these really bad things at the door of "the economic downturn," I get uneasy.

The Binghamton shooting is a terrible thing. So was the incident outside of Boston a few days ago, where a young man stabbed two of his younger sisters (one was five years old) to death and would have killed a third if police (alerted by the older of the sisters who died) hadn't broke down the door, told him to stop, and (when he didn't) killed him. That young man was demoralized because he couldn't get a job because of his prison record. Did he kill his sisters because he couldn't get a job, or because the deck is stacked against poor men with a prison record? The overwhelming majority of young men in similar straits don't kill, or threaten to kill, anyone, never mind their five-year-old sisters.

These killings are horrific. If they happen in your neighborhood or your hometown or at your college or to people you know, of course you're going to plumb your own experience looking for the reasons why. Maybe you, and we, will be able to figure out ways to prevent future tragedies. But it's also important to remember that these incidents are rare. That's why they get reported, and that's why we drop whatever we're doing to talk or write about them. Sure, it's tempting to blame them on "the economic downturn" because that way we can persuade ourselves that the financial fatcats and their deregulation cronies are guilty of gruesome murders. Do they have to be? Let's focus on what they themselves did with their own two hands: disregard all ethical, human, political, and commonsense considerations in order to maximize paper profits.

One huge problem with contemporary U.S. journalism is that it tends to focus on isolated incidents and human-interest stories without making much attempt to connect the dots -- and, worse, it treats first-magnitude stories like 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the crash of the financial system as if they're isolated incidents. I look to AlterNet and other alternative media to help me connect those dots. Without the connections, we get stuck in react-react-reactionary mode, and it becomes just about impossible to either identify problems or feel our way toward solutions.

Blaming really bad things on the economy isn't all that much different from blaming them on bad genes, or fate, or God. All this blaming lets us off the hook. If God, fate, bad genes, or the economy is to blame, we don't have to ask ourselves why these really bad things happen, or to keep pushing ourselves till we come up with some down-to-earth answers.


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