• The story within the story
    January 10,2014

    Your New Year’s Day editorial, “Looking forward,” offers a tempting target for a loyal Times Argus reader to put forward a slightly different take on a trio of 2013 news stories deemed significant by the TA editorial board. Here’s my offering.

    While the dramatic Boston Marathon bombing dominated national headlines, a revealing story within the story received little attention.

    Exploding bombs and fatalities at a major international event, heroic rescues, thousands of real-time photos, helicopter chases, shootouts and the lockdown of a major Boston suburb — no question a dramatic story. The gripping personal tales of loss and recovery filled the news for months following the disaster. What did Vermonters learn from that tragic event and its aftermath? What were the take-home lessons from such a tragedy? We learned that Russian and U.S. intelligence agencies don’t readily cooperate. And we learned that U.S. intelligence operations may not follow every lead. And, I would maintain, that the confession and motive scrawled on the bloodied hull of the boat where the wounded surviving terrorist suspect was hiding can at least give Americans some grasp of why we are terrorist targets.

    The young Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote that he and his brother set off the bombs in retaliation for the tens of thousands of civilians killed by the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. In no way does this confession or justification lessen the horror of the crime. However, if some powerful nation ruthlessly attacked America, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians — with such wholesale abandon that the attacker made no effort even to keep track of civilian deaths — as the U.S. in Iraq, then, someday, young Americans, too, in a desperate act of retaliation might strap on a suicide belt or set off a bomb in a public gathering.

    The story of those two misguided recent immigrants tells us much more than a tale of terrorist outrage in Boston. It alerts Americans to the reality that the last decade’s unprovoked foreign conquest and killings in our country’s name have spawned a deep understandable legacy of bitterness and hatred in millions of people.

    Last year’s media focus on Obamacare and, locally, Vermont Health Connect seemed a nearly endless coverage of missed deadlines, last-minute changes and the dire predictions from well-funded conservative think tanks. Indeed, it might be said that a major portion of all coverage of the GOP focused on Republican efforts to stall or totally defund Obamacare. All this well-deserved journalistic carping and criticism glides past any perspective on why efforts at health care reform stand as the most significant legislative initiatives in half a century. From an overall public health horizon far too many Americans get inadequate or no health care at all. Among the advanced nations the U.S. consistently ranks near the bottom in such basic measures as infant mortality.

    A retired physician friend writing about our broken health care system shared: “Free market medical insurance is a vicious beast we know all too well, with shriveled populations of the covered, aggressive mechanism for denial of coverage and major examples of arbitrary cancellations coupled with confiscatory premium scales.” This doctor’s perspective on a 40-year surgical career highlights the profound weak points of our current system. Further, as a four decade cancer survivor who changed careers and moved among different states, I can speak to the repeated costly scrambles to provide basic health insurance for my family.

    Let’s hope the 2014 media coverage of U.S. efforts to bring its medical care nearer the higher standards enjoyed by many other nations will include a careful diagnosis of the present system’s dire shortcomings. When more Americans truly understand why “only in America can a medically insured family be driven into bankruptcy by a minor accident or illness,” perhaps our neighbors and the media will be a bit more patient and supportive with the inevitable glitches in the new systems’ launch.

    To label the Occupy Wall Street movement as “frivolous” and “unserious” reminds us why journalists are often deemed cynical. The dozens of OWS protests in American cities and throughout the world represent the first muted chirp of a dispirited yet determined generation whose purposeful roar will someday rule the world. The young people battered in nighttime police raids, their torn-up first aid tents, their broken laptops, the smashed journalist cameras, the hourly coordination of the national crackdown orchestrated by the Department of Homeland Security. Every encampment was infiltrated by police informers. Young people were sometimes detained in holding areas for so many hours they soiled themselves. Yes, there was dramatic press coverage, and, I would maintain, the mainstream media totally missed the story within the story.

    When police officers — and I mean the ones in charge wearing the white shirts — wantonly, from close range, squirt pepper spray into the unprotected eyes of restrained protesters, an ugly and tragic chapter in American history has begun. The amateur filming of such psychopathic incidents on both coasts went viral to shock the entire nation.

    These young educated, idealistic, hopeful Americans are telling us that corporate capitalism does not work for 99 percent of America. Unable to find meaningful work, unable to buy a car, unable to escape the onerous conditions of college loans, these 20-somethings also fully understand that their parents’ incomes have been stagnant since before they were born. For them the basic promises of America’s myth of progress are out of reach.

    The courageous men and women of the Occupy Wall Street protests clearly frightened those in power. The fine tuning of the OWS crackdown by DHS and the consistent severity of overwhelming police responses tell perceptive Americans a critical message needs to be heard. The British initially viewed the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord as “unserious,” simply disorganized farmers. The North Carolina lunch counter sit-ins by determined young African-Americans were routinely deemed “frivolous” by the local media.

    Listen up, America. As the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle observed more than a century ago, “Social injustice repays itself with frightful compound interest.” Let’s hope the media in 2014 will always strive to tell us the story within the story.

    Erik Esselstyn lives in North Montpelier.

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