Doctor: I have bad news and worse news.
Patient: Give me the worse news first.
Doctor: You have cancer.
Patient: Oh, no, that’s terrible. What’s the bad news?
Doctor: You have Alzheimer’s.
Patient: Phew, at least I don’t have cancer.
This grim jest has long characterized the state of our media. Today’s news assumes such urgency, such immediacy, that yesterday’s images fade into nothingness. This applies not only to news of the present but even to fears of the future. The fact that yesterday’s doomsday scenario had more sizzle than steak and finally fizzled as a fake does not give our xanthous journals pause when they announce the latest phantom phobia. As I like to say: Today is so busy being tomorrow’s yesterday that it forgets to be yesterday’s tomorrow.
So the idea of a three-year-old story dominating a current news cycle seems unimaginable. Yet that is precisely what we have witnessed this week. Sen. Charles Schumer (D.-N.Y.) told a tale, in or out of school, about a plot by al Qaeda to spray cyanide in the air at New York City subway stations. This scheme, hatched three years ago, is believed to have been abandoned by its authors. Therefore, says Schumer, we must shoo more terrorism by allocating bigger bucks to his home state of New York.
Now, we need not chuck our skepticism on his mere say-so. The gentleman from New York has always had a penchant for making news, even if that called for making up news. Science fiction, let us recall, can be set in the past as well as the future. Someone might have been overheard on the A Train saying "That Al Keider is a real gas" and that would have been plenty of evidence to get the good senator hyperventilating.
But be charitable, says I. Let us grant the premise. We will concede the veracity. (As we like to tell Senator Chuck: don’t let your lack of gravitas get in the way of your veritas.) The story, we shall allow, is true. A major, elaborate plot was concocted by the brain trust of al Qaeda for the purpose of murdering some New Yorkers and terrorizing the rest. The plan did not come to fruition. Why not? Surely the cabal of killers did not suddenly gain compassion or lose motivation. Obvious conclusion: the nefarious stratagem was not junked, it was foiled.
Yep, foiled. By us. By the good guys. By the duly elected and appointed and constituted bodies of our government. By Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and all those other lackeys of Big Oil. Apparently neither Halliburton nor the Saudi royal family nor Karl Rove’s poll-taking could dissuade them from performing their sworn obligations.
Schumer, for once, is right. He’s right that al Qaeda and its sympathizers would sorely love to make this country a target again. They want to show that 9/11 was no fluke, that they can inflict pain at will. We don’t need a high security clearance to get this: it is so obvious as to be in the nature of a tautology. There’s probably a mural of the Empire State Building painted on the wall of bin Laden’s cave.
If, in fact, nearly five years have passed and there is no subway gas or Super Bowl bomb or Disneyland explosion anywhere in the United States, that tells us that our government, particularly its arms of law enforcement, has been expending gargantuan efforts on our behalf, efforts that have met with a perfect record of success. The subtext of Schumer’s retroactive news flash is that nothing has happened. And that nothing speaks very loudly.
He may not have Alzheimer’s, but the senior senator from the great state of New York has forgotten the main point of this bit of ancient history. That point is this: If the people who are sporting an impeccable record of protecting your lives and livelihoods tell you that your state has received enough funding for its security needs, it’s tacky to get up and proclaim that you know better.
Unless, of course, it’s all about money. As in the other doctor-patient joke, the one immortalized by the late Henny Youngman.
Doctor: You have six months to live and my fee for the consultation is $1,200.
Patient: But I’m poor and I can only make payments of $100 a month.
Doctor: In that case, you have 12 months to live.
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