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The Priorities of Outrage: Guns Before Butter

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By Jonathan Meador

Since your social media feeds have likely been hijacked by gun-related missives from good-intentioned friends, family and other assorted nice (but unhinged) Facebook acquaintances in the wake of Friday’s horrific shooting in Newtown, Conn., it’s likely that you may have missed one of the biggest news stories in this waning year of our flying spaghetti monster, 2012.

Roughly 24 hours before Adam Lanza reportedly entered Sandy Hook Elementary and killed 20 children and six adults before turning the gun on himself, the news broke that the United States Department of Justice would not prosecute one of the world’s largest banks, despite the fact that this storied financial institution, U.K.-based HSBC, directly laundered the money of Mexican drug cartels and conducted business with bona fide terrorists, marking the latest such non-prosecution of so-called “too big to jail” banks.

By levying a fine against HSBC that constituted a mere five weeks’ worth of income, the U.S. government has effectively enshrined the practice of “jailing the victims and enabling the criminals” in America’s 40-year-old War on Drugs, according to Rolling Stone’s resident bullshit detector, Matt Taibbi.

But now that yet another unbalanced American has committed yet another act of unimaginable gun-based tragedy, it’s unlikely that you, your friends, your family or those crazy assholes on your Facebook feed — let alone the media and Congress — have even heard about the settlement, making it highly unlikely that the American public will release its finite bile reserves on two heads of the same multiheaded beast at once.

When you decide not to prosecute bankers for billion-dollar crimes connected to drug-dealing and terrorism (some of HSBC’s Saudi and Bangladeshi clients had terrorist ties, according to a Senate investigation), it doesn’t protect the banking system, it does exactly the opposite. It terrifies investors and depositors everywhere, leaving them with the clear impression that even the most “reputable” banks may in fact be captured institutions whose senior executives are in the employ of (this can’t be repeated often enough) murderers and terrorists. Even more shocking, the Justice Department’s response to learning about all of this was to do exactly the same thing that the HSBC executives did in the first place to get themselves in trouble — they took money to look the other way.

By eschewing criminal prosecutions of major drug launderers on the grounds (the patently absurd grounds, incidentally) that their prosecution might imperil the world financial system, the government has now formalized the double standard.

They’re now saying that if you’re not an important cog in the global financial system, you can’t get away with anything, not even simple possession. You will be jailed and whatever cash they find on you they’ll seize on the spot, and convert into new cruisers or toys for your local SWAT team, which will be deployed to kick in the doors of houses where more such inessential economic cogs as you live. If you don’t have a systemically important job, in other words, the government’s position is that your assets may be used to finance your own political disenfranchisement.

On the other hand, if you are an important person, and you work for a big international bank, you won’t be prosecuted even if you launder 9 billion dollars. Even if you actively collude with the people at the very top of the international narcotics trade, your punishment will be far smaller than that of the person at the very bottom of the world drug pyramid. You will be treated with more deference and sympathy than a junkie passing out on a subway car in Manhattan (using two seats of a subway car is a common prosecutable offense in many cities). An international drug trafficker is a criminal and usually a murderer; the drug addict walking the street is one of his victims. But thanks to [Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny Breuer], we’re now in the business, officially, of jailing the victims and enabling the criminals.

As of this morning, dueling Google searches yield 27.5 million results for “HSBC settlement” versus a staggering 1.06 billion hits for the terms “shooting Connecticut.” And why not? The tragedy that unfolded in Newtown is as succinct as it is visceral, the kind of regularly occurring horror that our modern-day 24-hour media apparatus exists to exploit, having had literally dozens of opportunities to perfect this familiar dog-and-pony since Columbine. The result is the formation of a certain archetype of lazy coverage: the Gypsy-like horde of news vans and their requisite location shots featuring the site of the tragedy du jour in the background; images of grieving parents (and, in this case, disgustingly exploitative interviews with the child witnesses of the massacre who haven’t even learned what the word “hack” means); a morbid and exhausting excavation of the suspect’s life and psyche, his/her motives and the trotting out of experts in weak appeals to authority; how parents and schools can better protect against such violence, with localized versions of that same story written large across the Internet and nightly newscasts; the inevitable reaction of the POTUS and lesser politicos, usually accompanied by vague, noncommittal allusions to the larger issues of non-existent gun control and a lack of funding for mental health in a country where it’s easier to buy a semi-automatic rifle at a gun show than it is to discuss one’s violent urges with a psychologist.

But when it comes to the systemic, glacial destruction of the lives of millions of Americans in the ongoing farce that is a war on poor people, the story that needs to be told isn’t. It is an amorphous story, packaged not with a neat and bloody bow, but with barbed wire, red tape and the salaries of thousands of police officers. It is a story that is much, much harder to tell, and so it is never really told outside of the same mainstream outlets offering continuous, easy coverage of that month’s murder and mayhem.

Connecting all of the dots — no matter how obvious and disgusting those dots may be, as in the HSBC case — is difficult for a media-entertainment complex that’s better suited to hunt down the most distant relative of a spree shooter and ambush him on live television than explaining, in any detail, how jailing a person for owning a plant is a farce in the wake of federal acquiescence to a tyrannical corporate interest.

In large part, the visuals and story-telling conventions of the War on Drugs (and its connection with the world of high finance) pale in comparison to the vast toolbox offered by mass killings. There are no establishing on-location shots other than the blighted neighborhoods of our own communities that we pretend do not exist, the prisons we have built at great expense to house vast swaths of lower classes, the boardrooms where reporters won’t even be admitted. There are no villains besides well-meaning but short-sighted and unimaginative businessmen and women, no heroes outside of law enforcement officers, often trotted out in full regalia, chirping to eager news reporters whenever they can put dope on the table.

There is no statement from the president or lesser politicos on the incarceration rates of black men that rival the number of their ancestors under the yoke of institutional slavery. The face of a child whose parent has been arrested for a drug charge (or murdered during a drug transaction) is never plastered on our televisions in prime time, nor is the mug of HSBC brass who made money off of that child’s misery, or their Wall Street equivalents. No, in these stories, it’s always somebody lighting up a joint with their face strategically obscured or outright blurred to oblivion, as if to suggest that it’s a taboo to reveal a drug user’s identity — but if you’re 9 years old and you witnessed one of the worst massacres in United States history, there isn’t enough B-roll in the Western world. (Media pro-tip: It also helps if you’re American, because footage of foreign kids emotionally scarred by the horrors of drone strikes somehow doesn’t have the equivalent resonance.)

With both the HSBC settlement and the role of gun-control laws in the wake of the Newtown shooting, the conversation that should take place is the same; one in which the role of our much-maligned federal government is invoked to counteract the horrors and abuses of systems and markets left largely to the devices of a private sector that cares very little about the human costs of doing business, no matter the product. Unfortunately, and especially in Tennessee, the trite refrains of personal liberty, the superiority of the private sector in all things and the invocation of a poorly understood Constitution (coupled with a dissociative if not absurdly humorous loathing of the very government that Constitution enables) will erupt. Like clockwork, that collective wrongheadedness will attempt to gird fallacy after fallacy beneath a facade of debate, as if their ideology — which has successfully enabled the War on Drugs, financial deregulation and the erosion of gun control laws, just to name a few — has a legitimate side at this point in our nation’s history. Whether it’s the War on Drugs, gun-control, climate change or financial fraud, any debate that does not honestly discuss the failures of all parties and the consequences of those failures isn’t a debate at all, really. It’s a joke, but each time a Sandy Hook or an HSBC happens, it gets harder to laugh.

If we are lucky, our country will have a long overdue discussion about the influence of millions of dollars lavished upon state legislatures by a hugely successful and radical gun lobby on our national public safety, which is the equivalent of pumping raw sewage into our streets and wondering aloud, without sarcasm, why instances of cholera have skyrocketed. If we are lucky, we will discuss the lack of proper controls or psychological evaluations surrounding the purchase of firearms, buyers’ loopholes and easy access to guns in a 21st century society that neither experiences nor can fully comprehend the frontier life and revolutionary times that inspired our constitution’s battered and bruised Second Amendment. If we are lucky, we can use this tragedy as a wake-up call to face the other problems we are incapable of confronting, capitalizing on the readily accessible nature of the murder of kindergartners in order to tackle other, so-far unnameable Lovecraftian horrors.

Then, and only then, can we even hope to properly identify, let alone solve, problems that are exceedingly complex, or else these children and others will continue to die senselessly.

If recent American political history is any guide, however, we should not expect to be so lucky as to learn from our mistakes and react accordingly. Most recently, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Minority Leader from my home state of Kentucky, filibustered his own bill on the floor of the senate. He really did that. Not because it was in the name of service to this country, or he made a mistake, but because it was good politics for his party. As long as we will continue to have the same conversations about the same problems, and enable a society in which debate has lost all meaning and purpose, we will wake up one day only to realize that we have become the barbarians clamoring at our own gates. And no amount of talk can save us then.

This story was originally printed in the Nashville Scene and can be found at Pith in the Wind blog at www.nashvillescene.com/blogs/pitw

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