What seemed a terrible corrosion of public discourse before the mid-term elections is difficult to attribute to any single cause, person or a single election cycle. The ominous staccato of alarms at the arrival of improvised pipe bombs sent by mail to prominent Democratic party figures and Trump critics were readily visualized across the nation as a disruption, the degree to which the man who had sent them, Cesar Sayoc, existed in a hermetic world of Trump slogans made the map of destinations less relevant in comparison to their relation to the toxic tweets our nation’s President has directed to immigration as a threat to the national security.
Raising the specter of criminals and aliens–and profiling all refugees as criminals for crossing the border illegally–as an invasion of our territory, even if no members of the Caravan had approached the border, the Commander-in-Chief allowed it was not ‘conceivable’ the Caravan did not terrorists from the Middle East among their midst–and exposed the nation to a disconcerting word salad of apparent free associations in which “caravan after caravan” would be invited to enter the nation should Democrats gain majorities in mid-term elections, foretelling “a blue wave will equal a crime wave” in late October in clear attempts to disconcert and disorient in a haze of heightened paranoia in time for Halloween, not protect our national security. But the specters that he provoked and elicited are not only empty charges, but permeate our society, fears of subjects that are often perhaps not cast in such openly political terms of oppositions between parties–“a blue wave will equal a crime wave; and a red wave will equal law and safety,” but exist in our landscape.
They exist in the huge diffusion of mug shots and Most Wanted images that jump outside of the confines of Reality TV as something like click bait–online images that have migrate to billboards or into the separate sections of small print newspapers–and instill a fear of the violence of those operating outside of the law, and are mirrored in how the us v. them categories existed in growing numbers of imprisoned within our borders, and the fears of fugitives stoked in billboards, and indeed in the growing epidemic of incarceration that feeds the idea of the criminal, and indeed of an expansive category of criminality, that has haunted the United States, and is perhaps magnified as an interactive spectacle both in the growth of Reality TV shows as “America’s Most Wanted” and the digitized billboards promoting the apprehension of fugitives along the interstates–and the fears that Donald Trump promotes of “murderers and rapists” at our borders, now with terrorists as well in the mix.
The repeated invocation of national security concerns, to argue those seeking asylum constitute threats to the nation, stand to change the United States from a place to seek sanctuary, ordering 5,000 troops–and perhaps up to 15,000–to the border with Mexico to bolster Border Patrol forces, and add more concertina wire, as he tweeted to refugees the “you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process” and called their approach in no uncertain terms “an invasion of our Country” for which “our Military is waiting,” before Halloween, sending more troops to the borders than as are stationed in Syria and Iraq combined. This military mobilization set the national atmosphere on edge on October 31, 2018, focussing our military presence on the border in a way no Commander-in-Chief has ever done. The alarm that we should all feel at the bulking up of a military presence in a zone that lacks any actual combatants suggests a sick hollowing out of the value of military missions globally, not to mention military morale.
United States Troop Deployments on US-Mexico Border (expected) and in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq on October 31, 2018; other numbers from June 30
The civil disruptions that had occurred within the country were taking up most of the media, but were hard to map, even though they were bound up so tightly in delusions and fears that spun from the border. Cesar Sayoc was accused of mailing poorly improvised DIY pipe-bombs that were thankfully badly improvised, and found before they arrived in the hands of their destinations or exploded; but fears spurred by their arrival at multiple sites across the nation echoed maps of “sprees” of terrorizing pipe bombs in the past. This time, they revealed the terrifyingly captivating nature of alt-right discourse even as they seemed destabilize the nation by attacking individuals. Even if they didn’t explode, the sequence of bombs revealed tears in our political and civil space–and of a politics of demonization, targeted at how Trump had designated dangers to the state, and of fear more than hope or civic involvement as we knew it.
The rash of violence that we couldn’t help but map to try to make sense of it, and it was viewed as a national wake-up call and emergency that it was–
–unfolding over a series of days in one week, either because of the vagaries of the U.S. Postal Service, or the actual intention of their maker–which seems beside the point–as the impression that they created of a plague of violence, tapping into the repeatedly foiled plots of terrorist attacks, ranging from teenage with contact to Al Qaeda to the twenty-one year old accused of planting twenty-four pipe bombs which would form, connecting their dots, a smiley face that would stare back at the viewer, whose smile was to arc from Colorado to North Texas to Tennessee. If the latter used a map to plant pipe bombs in mailboxes that would create a giant “smiley face” so that the map would stare back at the nation, the map stared back as a staccato punctuation of the civil fabric, even if they did not explode or injure anyone.
Their progress raised alarms and confusion as to the uncertainty about what was to come, and if the illusion of civil peace could be sustained. The planned set of attacks that seemed to destabilize public discourse was born out of Donald Trump’s head–who else links George Soros and Tom Steyer with Cory Booker, Eric Holder, Jr., Bill and Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Jr., Maxine Waters, Michael Moore, Kamala Harris and Robert DeNiro?–even as they seemed to tip an already uneasy nation over a brink of whatever decorum remained. They seemed to threaten to rend the very fabric of the nation, on the eve of the midterm elections, as the arrival of sent pipe-bombs planted alarmist messages and reminded us of the increased escalation of oppositional rhetoric in United States politics, as these anonymous acts of terror created a terrifying instability of our civic space.
There was twinned let-down of tensions and a terrifying realization as the man who sent them, holed up in a white van in Florida so covered with Trump-Pence stickers aptly characerized as a MAGAmobile–whose inhabitant seemed to have spent the last two years in the virtual world of an online campaign, drawing sustenance from the ideological slogans of Trump’s campaign. Sayoc made bombs that failed to explode, probably from downloaded instructions, in a van with windows were so fully covered in garish divisive slogans they had effectively obscured any relation to a real world. The pipe-bombs spun from the frenetic identity of an online discourse, allegedly used in the subsequent massacre of Jews, a mass-murder at a Pittsburgh synagogue, driven by fears of immigrants and the promotion of immigration as if both were dangers in danger of “suspected terrorists” destabilizing the state. Trump has erased all integrity when with recognizable narcissism he described how both both of these tragic events served to “stop a certain momentum” going into the elections, as the acts of “two maniacs” he energetically disowned, as if they had shifted attention from the impact of GOP theatrics when they only shone a light on the dangers of Trumpets rhetoric and re-examination of his tweets in relation to the nation’s psychological health.
1. The bombs’ destinations may be a bit revealing, even if maps couldn’t capture the tragedy, or reach the violence Trump’s oppositional rhetoric plants in our civic space. The pipe bombs were sent where media hubs of its coastal states, which President Trump has indulgently attacked as “elitist,” in an attack on cosmopolitanism and coastal elites–and the mapping of such regions to members of the Democratic party seen as especially dangerous to the nation. The geography of the bombs was less striking than their destination for the coasts–the eastern seaboard, but also the western in California–coastal sites in “blue states” that Trumpists have distanced from the heartland, sewing divisions in the nation. The sequence of a week of pipe bombs was terrifyingly followed by a terribly violent attack killing and maiming members of a Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue before Shabbat services, allegedly after crying “All Jews must die,” as if mainstreaming the need to defend the ‘nation’ against immigrants seen as terrorists. Joseph Bowers’ social media post on his intentionally unmonitored Gab–“I can’t sit by and watch my people getting slaughtered”–used its alleged protection of “free speech” to ready himself to open fire upon innocent congregants. The killings mapped the distortion of reason on a platform that wanted ideals of free speech, promising to “promote raw, rational, open, and authentic discourse online,” and would defend the best response to hate speech as more speech. Even though the two men had never met–and didn’t know of one another–they were triggered and animated, as Noah Berlatsky notes, by a common manufactured fears of migrants, and an antisemitic attribution of assistance for immigration and animosity to globalist Jews, and left the a good part of the nation mourning or in shock.
Memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Unmonitored platforms may create alternate worlds, but cannot radicalize, even though no platform for attention of such heinous attacks should exist. No space should allow calling for violent acts or promote the fostering of violence. And as I traveled outside Berkeley, CA, where the absence of civility in the nation is at times hard to map–I was struck by the proliferation on the side of freeways of strikingly analogous oppositional rhetoric is evident in the proliferation of specters of fugitives, frozen in mug shots placed in digitized billboards, as a broad expansion of our notions of criminality: by advocating a public sort of retributive violence, the specters that increasingly haunt the interstate in such digitized billboards allow drivers to enter versions of “America’s Most Wanted,” the old television show FOX created and endured so long on air, while behind the wheel. The direct engagement of such an oppositional rhetoric of danger seemed outside the political world–it was from a federal law enforcement agency, after all, but triggered a deep sense of unease that is echoed in the fear of outsiders and rampant criminality at our gates: as Vice President Pence intoned quite surreally and without any proof that it was all but certain terrorists were among the Caravan of central American refugees and migrants approaching to seek asylum in racially charged terms–“It is inconceivable that there are not people of Middle Eastern descent” who would “not be in this large throng” approaching the border, in defense of Trump’s outrageous claim“Middle Eastern” people will emerge among the migrant caravan if you “look with cameras” and his instructions to the press to “take your cameras, go into the middle of the Caravan, and search” for MS-15 gang members, Middle Easterners. In these ungrounded assertions, the danger of refugees was linked to those who the President, as Rebecca Solnit wrote, had pushed the nation, but also Bowers and Peyoc to focus on.
Driving to an airport in Newark, NJ, I couldn’t but think of the new means of civic involvement–based on fear–that has spread in the nation, as the face of a glassy-eyed fugitive from the law jumped out from other surrounding signage, as if the digital billboards of wanted criminals drew attention to targets of public wrath and danger,–their identities were obscured by their felonies, as the terror of their crimes seemed a means of striking fear into my heart, as it suddenly seemed as if the space through which I was driving outside Newark was considerably more dangerous than that of Manhattan, and that I had to escalate my guard as I had entered a new space. I was struck by the prominence of such haunting billboards of haunted men and women shortly before the spate of bombings prompted reflections on how such a corrosive political discourses began,–or could be blamed for the rise of such horrific acts of violence in public life–and the odd relation they created to criminality and to the law, or the project of federal law enforcement and the role of the state. The billboards stake out a notion of civic involvement and participation by identifying and apprehending federal criminals that eerily echoed the demonization of dangers to the nation–the deepest “we” and the broadest “collective”–that the arrival of criminals, whether they be concealed in groups of refugees, or among those who sought asylum, or were those guilty of crossing the border “illegally” and were hence felons as a result–indeed, true national threats–that has been the logic of sending troops to the border, and protecting our frontiers. But these posters invited citizens to search for similar dangerous faces in their memories, and to direct attention to the fearful presence of fugitives among us, and indeed likely to be seen in their own states, perhaps lurking right off of that very interstate.
The rhetoric of civic engagement was terrifying as the elevation of a new notion of national security. Can one look at an origin point in the direction of a redefinition of criminality, outside the court of law, in the register of Reality TV as much as in reality. The mug shots of most wanted and images haunt not only the freeways, but the mug shots that come to constitute entire sections of newspapers, as if to grab attention of audiences against their online competitors? The emergence of set the scene for arrival of Donald J. Trump and the intensity of his almost baseless baiting by his personalized taunts about immigrants, ICE, and deportations, and the threats of gang violence, rapes, murders, human trafficking, and terrorism that have haunted his demonization of immigrants, refugees, and the approaching Caravan. For the images of fugitives that haunt the freeways seemed an invitation to participate in an ongoing form of Reality TV, as much as to invite citizen participation in law enforcement, expanding an elastic category of criminality as a sort of place-holder for all to see.
It is comforting that it was at the borders, however, that we saw borders broke for Beto in Texas, even if he narrowly lost the state, and that the candidates spewing anti-immigrant pro-border platforms in Arizona failed to capture the sort of attention we had feared.
But the prominence of the haunting images of faces of fugitives posted on the freeways, and the image of clear and present dangers that they personify and promote, seemed to create an eery reality at a remove from reality–a dram of Reality TV, in which the designer of a President who spent many years of thought dedicated to Reality TV ratings as a way he could better compete, seemed to haunt his own discourse of opposition, and his irrational obsessions with the dangers of criminality that needy hopeful immigrants in the Caravan are contaminated by, and indeed by the fears of contamination of the nation that Trump has so willfully sought to promote, as if to over-ride and obscure the choices that were at stake in the impending mid-term elections.