Goof Gas; Or, Read Him His Rights

Remember that old Bullwinkle episode where Boris and Natasha dosed America’s finest brains with a secret gas that made them stupid? Goof gas has been discovered; it’s the word “terrorism.” Effective in 94% of people (personal observation).

The sordid trick of creating a special, sacred, untouchable category of people whose motives are supposed to be irrational and unknowable– or let’s say “evil,” for brevity’s sake– is having its predictable effects. The 19-year-old second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing has been labeled a Terrorist, and gray-haired elder statesmen are baying to have him thrown into Guantanamo; people I supposedly am friendly with, or friend-of-a-friendly with (by the standards of Facebook) are calling for him to be tortured (as if that would serve any purpose of investigation or law). And, most notoriously, a city of 600,000 people was on lockdown for 48 hours and thousands of police were swarming around as if he were Godzilla come back from the bottom of the sea.

If he and his brother had killed a policeman, stolen a car at gunpoint, exchanged fire with cops, and somehow set off explosives that killed three and maimed 120, while robbing a bank, we would be talking about them as vicious criminals, but we would be secure in the knowledge that we have courts and prisons designed to handle such cases, and handle them (let’s hope) dispassionately. But robbing a bank is, I guess, normal, and this other thing is somehow out of the sphere of humanity. But that’s absurd. People commit horrendous acts of violence and harm strangers all the time in their “pursuit of happiness.” Sometimes there’s a political or religious element to the wickedness, but not always. What they do can be described within the vocabulary of the police blotter and the criminal law, judges can hear testimony for and against them, they can have their day in court and their many days in prison, if found guilty. This is everyday life in a society that has laws.

No need to get all terroristic about terrorism. Read the poor SOB his Miranda rights, for heaven’s sake. Question him first, if there’s a likelihood that he has stashed further bombs that might be set to explode and hurt people. Question him about that. But don’t put him outside the reach of the law, deny him access to a lawyer or the right to remain silent, just to punish him. That actually wouldn’t punish him; it would reward him, it would make him from an American citizen (admittedly, not a very nice one) into a superman. Or Godzilla. And as far as a rational eye can see, he isn’t.

Jesse James was armed and dangerous. He was not a supernatural category. He was not evil incarnate. He was not a threat to all of our very existences. If you think little Dzokhar is, that’s the Goof Gas doing its work.



Update: on April 22, the judge notified the surviving suspect of the charges being brought against him. Though indigent, he was informed of his right to legal representation. So somebody out there is reading Printculture. Good.

2 thoughts on “Goof Gas; Or, Read Him His Rights

  1. “Terrorism” is a word almost designed to invoke terror in the reader (perhaps it was designed, I don’t have the etymology but it can be looked up). It – to me at least – implies the existence of people, or groups of people, who regard terror, in itself and independently of any “cause” or justification, as being something which can be followed, as a believer follows her beliefs. This terror-without-a-cause is their supposed vocation, it is “what they do.” The vagueness of the motivation for their actions adds to the omnipresent threat they supposedly pose but, as you point out, the term itself is what brings on the terror, as the gas brings on the narcosis, leaving the terrified reader, as the stupefied gas-breather, subject to all manner of false or distorted views of what it is that constitutes the cause of their stupefaction and/or fears.

    One should refuse to be terrified by terrorism as one ought not be fearful of ghosts: neither really exist until they manifest themselves, unmediated [sic], to one’s personal experience. Even then, though the wedding party might be terrified by the lightless lozenge of the incoming drone, the drone is, and cannot ever be, a “terrorist.”

    All words ending -ist when there IS a corresponding -ism ought to be questioned in similar manner, even “harmless” ones such as environmentalism. The -ism is what is followed by the -ist, it seems, hence no chemism, no oncologism, and hence aphorist / aphorism and modernism / modernist.

    I live in frail expectation of post-Terrorism, though I know that that is a glib neologism; bilge from a self-admitted neologist.

    Thanks for this: seriously. More people – well, all people – should think about “control words” like this much more carefully. “Islamism” might be a good place to continue….

  2. I’m genuinely puzzled by the insistence of Messrs McCain and Graham (and anyone else, for that matter) that Tsarnaev be deemed an enemy combatant and launched by the nape into Gitmo. Putting aside obvious and troubling issues about what “enemy” means in this case, what success have we had against terror/terrorists via the military justice system? I’ll answer my own question: None. Such calls must, then, be about revenge and hurt (which we also have unfolded clumsily as well as repugnantly).

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