Exploding Myths | Essay | Chicago Reader

Exploding Myths 

Everyone in the media seems to agree that "our safety" and "our innocence" have been lost in one fell swoop. But just who belongs to this bessed "we"? Who among us would feel safe and secure in a place like Oklahoma City?

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"Nothing in modern times approaches the Oklahoma disaster," the Chicago Tribune announced on April 20, the day after a thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil nearly leveled the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, killing more than 100 people in the process. The explosion "slashed deep into [the nation's] sense of heartland security," continued the Tribune. It "stabb[ed] an icy fear of terror into the American heartland," the Sun-Times echoed. Everywhere you turned that day "the heartland," once a bastion of simple Christian virtues, was under siege.

Major newspapers across the nation magically transformed the Murrah building into an aberrant stain upon an otherwise shimmering, picket-fenced frontier, nostalgic icon for a lost, Capra-esque America that never existed in the first place. Before the bombing, Oklahoma City was "a sleepy kind of place, boasting with some pride that it is the home of both the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and the National Softball Hall of Fame," explained the Los Angeles Times. "On any other day," reported the New York Times, "[firefighters] would have answered calls to kitchen fires, domestic disputes, or even a cat up a tree." That morning, "the sky was blue, and there was a breeze teasing at the spring leaves on the trees," rhapsodized the San Francisco Chronicle irrelevantly. But then, "with a rumble like the wrath of God" (Los Angeles Times), "a car bomb hit America's heartland" (Boston Globe), "ending forever the illusion that here at home, we are safe" (Newsweek).

Journalists seemed particularly shocked that the bomb had penetrated our most impregnable defense: kitsch. "It does not happen in a place where, disembarking at the airport, passengers see a woman holding a sign that welcomes them to the lieutenant governor's annual turkey shoot," the New York Times explained on its front page. "It does not happen in a city that has a sign just outside the city limits, 'Oklahoma City, Home of Vince Gill.'" Commentator after commentator lined up to cry that such a thing "wasn't supposed to happen" there, "1,500 miles from New York, where such things are expected," as Harvard professor and Oklahoma native Mickey Edwards put it in his April 28 Tribune column. (He went on to condescend, "This may be a hard concept for people in other parts of the country to understand but people in Oklahoma are nice....We say 'howdy' (we really do).") As Lisa Anderson and Stephen Franklin pointed out in the April 24 Tribune, the city sports license plates with "Oklahoma OK" stamped across them and "bus stop benches brightly emblazoned with 'It's a Wonderful Life. Oklahoma City.'" Surely license plates and public benches don't lie.

Anderson and Franklin outdid all their colleagues in irresponsible sentimentality, imagining that "days of watching thousands of shocked citizens tearfully but valiantly rallying to the aid of their fellow Oklahomans have led many Americans to imagine that life in Oklahoma City is the way life used to be in much of America: safe, open-hearted, God-fearing and neighborly. And in many ways, that is the truth." As firefighter Bill Finn, quoted on the front page of the New York Times, put it, "We're just a little old cowtown. You can't get no more Middle America than Oklahoma City."

And from high atop all this embarrassingly naive prose, that photograph of the fireman cradling the bloody corpse of one-year-old Baylee Almon always loomed, reproduced everywhere except on T-shirts and coffee mugs. It was "an icon of national trauma," Time magazine declared, as well as a great way to sell newspapers. In case the point of the photograph eluded anyone, freelancer Mary Beth Elgass explained it in an April 28 Tribune column: "Oklahoma City fireman No. 5 looking down at the bloodied child in his arms defines the loss of the last stronghold of our American innocence. No longer can we turn on our televisions or look at our newspapers and beat our breasts over the tragedies inflicted daily in other countries, in our own big coastal cities or in the violent confines of our inner cities, and murmur platitudes from our safe heartland homes.

"Not even our babies are safe."

It's remarkable just how much of the world Elgass has to explicitly eliminate in order to find the place where "our babies" used to be safe. Since everyone in the major media seems to agree that "our safety" and "our innocence" have been lost in one fell swoop--"They were workers at their desks and children at play--innocents all," the Tribune hyperbolized--one cannot help but wonder just who this blessed we is, a group that apparently has been living in Mayberry for most of the 20th century.

Elgass is right about one thing: her babies are not safe, especially in the exploitative hands of the media. The most appalling aspect of the Oklahoma City coverage was the zeal with which journalists combed the debris of the Murrah building, desperate to zero in on yet another glimpse of infant horror. "Two [children] were burned beyond recognition," the Tribune informed us needlessly. "The bodies of the rest, up to 7 years old, were mangled." The Sun-Times quoted two rescue workers, the first of whom said, "Children's bodies were mangled and decapitated. There was lots of blood and debris," while the second added, "Babies were wrapped around poles." (These quotes also appeared twice in the same issue of the Los Angeles Times--in two separate stories.) A medical technician told the New York Times, "I just took part in a surgery where a little boy had a part of his brain hanging out of his head." Newsweek quoted a nurse saying, "One child had no face, just torn skin," while Time reported, "There were scattered toys everywhere, haphazardly mingled with arms and legs." One wonders whose prurient interest such information is intended to pique.

But this ghoulish group of journalists, so concerned about the welfare of several dozen Oklahoma children, overlooked the real source of danger to those and tens of thousands of other kids across the country. Only a week after the bombing, the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect issued the results of its two-and-a-half-year study. It showed that abuse and neglect in the home is the leading cause of death among American children under the age of four, claiming some 2,000 lives and 18,000 disabling injuries annually. (The report also says that child abuse fatalities are underreported.) By comparison, the second leading cause of trauma death, car accidents, kills only half as many children. A dozen horribly unfortunate children may have been victims of a single, massive explosion, but a much more lethal and insidious terrorist campaign has been raging for years against children unsafe in their heartland homes.

The thought of being caught alone in a little old cowtown stabs an icy needle of terror into my personal heartland. As a gay man I know all too well what it feels like to be a target every day of my life, and nowhere do I feel quite so vulnerable as in "the heartland," in those small and medium-size midwestern and southern cities that the Tribune imagines are safe, openhearted, God-fearing, and neighborly. And I am not alone. Almost every gay man I know left middle America for the perceived tolerance and safety of the Big City.

Of course, antigay violence is reportedly greatest precisely in those gay urban meccas where our presence is most visible. But finding statistics that might show the level of violence directed against gays in smaller midwestern cities is virtually impossible. Not only do most cases go unreported, the victims unwilling to engage the police for fear of further mistreatment, but the FBI, in its annual Crime in the United States report, lumps all hate crimes into a single table of national totals. By contrast, 25 pages of charts detail, among other things, just how many motor vehicles were stolen in each of the country's 275 largest metropolitan areas. As any well-informed gay person knows in his or her gut, a terrorist campaign rages against gays and lesbians in this country, both on the streets and in the legislative chambers. I have never harbored the illusion that "here at home, we are safe." Whoever this we is, it doesn't include us.

Neither does it include ethnic minorities, who find themselves in the crosshairs all too often, at least when they're not cut out of the picture altogether. Lester (Bob) LaRue's photograph of Firefighter and Child symbolizes our lost innocence only because it has been carefully cropped.

The full photo, reproduced in Newsweek, shows an African-American woman lying on a stretcher in the foreground, her head bandaged, a stream of blood trailing across the pavement toward the viewer. Behind her stands the fireman. It wasn't enough to leave the person of color at the white savior's feet; in order for him to become an "icon of national trauma," she had to be removed from his presence altogether.

In fact, the sacred we does not include women of any color, if FBI crime statistics are to be believed. According to Crime in the United States for 1993, the most recent report, the heartland is a decidedly unsafe place for women. New York state's 1993 rate of "forcible rape" per 100,000 residents is 27.5. California's is 37.7. But Oklahoma's is 49.3. While the vast majority of states showed a decrease in rape from 1992 to 1993, there were 11 states, including Idaho, Montana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Iowa, and North Dakota, that showed an increase. (Vermont had the largest increase, nearly 60 percent.)

Looking at individual cities, the picture is even more sobering. Oklahoma City's 1993 rape rate of 73.9 is almost twice that of Los Angeles and nearly three times that of New York City or Washington, D.C. (Chicago figures are not included in the report.) Of the 275 metropolitan areas listed, Oklahoma City ranks 17th. Other cities posting rape rates significantly higher than New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., include: Dubuque, Iowa; Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Sioux City, Iowa; Enid, Oklahoma; Lawton, Oklahoma; and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In fact, the city with the highest rape rate in the country is Rapid City, South Dakota. And you can't get no more middle America than Rapid City. Edwards may believe that his fellow Oklahomans "welcome folks with open arms," but apparently they greet women with open trouser fronts.

Since gays, lesbians, ethnic minorities, and all women must be eliminated from the hallowed we who used to be safe and secure in the heartland, who is left? Who are the people about whom Newsweek writes, "We find it hard to accept that our personal safety can't be guaranteed"? Does it come as any surprise that once again an entire nation has been reduced to white, heterosexual, middle-class males? Time barely conceals this bias, declaring, "A sense of guilty introspection swept the country when the FBI released sketches of the suspects, distinctly Caucasian John Does 1 and 2." Had those composite sketches been distinctly African-American, Middle Eastern, or Latino, we would have been off the hook, once again victims of the unruly, ungrateful mess of them.

If white heterosexual men need to lose anything, it's their willful ignorance. Perhaps now they know what it feels like to be a target in their own country. But as the press coverage of the Oklahoma bombing shrinks to a detective story, with federal agents tracking leads and questioning suspects, our defenses will spring back into place, allowing us to forget that for a brief moment we understood the plight of someone other than ourselves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Dorothy Perry.

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