This story is over 5 years old.


A Stone for Michael Stewart

Last week you threw away a Crock-Pot your mom gave you for Christmas 20 years ago.

You live in Massachusetts, or New Orleans. Or Tucson, or Santa Barbara.

Last week you threw away a Crock-Pot your mom gave you for Christmas 20 years ago.

Now you're watching CNN. A discomforting thought wriggles into your mind. What if some terrorist, or some lunatic mistaken for a terrorist, or a terrorist who is a lunatic, as so many are, fished that Crock-Pot out of the garbage and made a bomb from it? Could Mom's thoughtful Xmas gift mutate hideously into your freakiest nightmare? Can you be charged in that situation as an accessory, or conspirator, or an accessory to a conspirator, in a terrorist plot, or a lunatic plot, if your household trash is recycled as an explosive device by someone you don't even know?


Many innocent people languish right now in an American concentration camp in Guantanamo, Cuba, detained for years on even flimsier non-evidence than chance proximity to an inanimate object, on the whim of a shadow government both super-secretive and brazenly public about its ability to do anything it wishes to anybody on Earth.

Catholics, Jews, Buddhists: expiation in the driver's seat. One way or other, Catholic sins must be scrubbed and pardoned, or there goes the kingdom of heaven. Despite how disgusting you are, confession spares you the fires of hell. You may wait half of eternity to join God in his splendor, but he's holding a table for you, and one day he'll honor your reservation. Buddhists avoid bad karma by performing good works, to return postmortem as higher beings instead of carrots. Jews behave well, the schmucks, because it's the right thing to do.

In some countries trial defendants are found innocent, in others not guilty. I don't know any place where both verdicts are available, though they're not the same thing. "Not guilty" means reasonable doubt. You might have done it, you could have, probably you did, but congratulations, you got away with it. "Innocent" sounds like you definitely didn't do it, and just being called innocent turns your skin as blushing fresh as a 12-year-old's, you cunning little criminal bastard.

Irony is not your friend. I am not even sure that any of this is irony. I don't know about you, but I can't listen any more. Not to them, not to any of it. It's all the same thing, over and over. Proud and staunch. Tough in a crisis. Back from the brink. Better and stronger. When we care, nobody cares like we care. Our friends have always known exactly where we stand. Future generations are bound to thank us. Make no mistake. Our purpose is clear. We were just sitting down to eat the children, won't you join us? Actually, I do know about you.


All the wealth to very few of the very few, corresponding ruin of most of the terribly many, has countless, obvious, deleterious effects. But also more elusive ones, not at all obvious, erratically traveling through the society's nervous system. Their toxicity condenses exponentially, like mercury or Strontium-90 rising through the food chain, from plankton or prairie grass to mother's milk. However far certain poisons travel from their point of origin, they ultimately cause horrific violence when they come to a full stop.

It has never happened, not once since slaves built the Pyramids, that the quantities of wealth the really wealthy have now existed in the same social order with the kind of misery we have now, without producing murder. In a mass society, mass murder. It's unlikely that any mass murderer thinks brutalist capitalism installed his compulsion to kill as many people as possible—his mind is full of God, or pussy, or what he envisions as an ideal shade of pink for the finish on a vintage Corvette—but then he doesn't have to think about it, since he incarnates it at the moment when he plans his first massacre at the local mall, movie theater, high school, or fast-food restaurant. Which he understands, in a nebulous way, to also be his last massacre, with himself his final victim.

May you, if it is the correct word, be spared the irony of life imprisonment for trashing a cookware item your mom gave you long ago for Bonne Noel. Could you be in serious trouble?


You tell me and we'll both know. The charges against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Boston Marathon bombing refer to a small kitchen appliance as a "weapon of mass destruction," a flight of contagious semantic hyperbole scattered across the media spectrum during the unexpected ratings bonanza of the Boston Marathon. The promiscuous use of terms like "weapon of mass destruction" has the obvious intention, and the effect, of demolishing all sense of proportion from the perception of events like the Boston bombings. This linguistic travesty is itself an act of terror, conflating the explosion of an improvised, home-made device with the detonation of a nuclear warhead—a Strangeloveian extreme of the Gulliver effect, wherein acts of violence are measured according to which populations they happen to, rather than levels of actual physical destruction. The latter, in Boston, were comparable to those of a drone aircraft strike or a suicide bomber in a street bazaar. Not nothing, quite a lot something, really. But not much at all if you are seriously trying to make it sound like Hiroshima, or the firebombing of Dresden.

In a state of perpetual war, where no tangible enemy exists, the entire planet serves as the theater of conflict's available playing area. The dehumanizing terms of the Gulliver effect become the defining code of a police state. Any people anywhere—in a single city block, for example—can be parsed into citizens and "enemy combatants" instantaneously, according to the needs of an interminable melodrama with a script subject to hourly rewrites. In this state of things, the observed distinction between "us" and "them" follows the basic principle of slapstick: If you step in front of a bus and get killed, that's comedy. If I slip on a banana peel, that's tragedy.


Those aren't the only distinctions being passed through the mangle of absurdity. If two exploding pressure cookers that kill three people and maim several dozen others constitute weapons of mass destruction, the invasion of Iraq was justified because Saddam Hussein had access to a Sears catalogue.

Do we really, always, want everything both ways? Ecology for us, let the others take our garbage? If that's how it is, be careful what you put in the garbage, because it might come back and bite you in the ass.

Opportunistic edicts that the surviving suspect, a naturalized American citizen, should be declared an "enemy combatant" (and, a la Emma Goldman in 1919, stripped of his civil rights), issued from the darkling cave of sniveling bitterness and toxic self-pity where John McCain, much given to wearing the flag like a diaper while feeding his few remaining threads of respectability to the grotto campfire, has festered since his electoral rejection in 2008, joined at the lip to cave-mate Lindsey Graham, Strom Thurmond's spiritual heir—each discerning, no doubt, the other's bizarre visions of a brighter world in the flickering shadows cast by the dying embers.

There was, too, a consensus among Halloween masks on chat TV that, even if he was a citizen, an obviously evil, obviously guilty individual like this one, being hazily connected to Chechnya, or Islam, or that fuzzy area near the bottom on maps of Russia, didn't deserve to have his Miranda warning read to him, if and when he regained consciousness.


There were predictable effusions of ugly feeling on Twitter and Facebook, from a global peanut gallery of borderline personalities, among them an Albany state senator named Greg Ball, whose signature tweet referred to the younger Tsarnaev brother as "scum bag #2", followed by the twittering question, "Who wouldn't use torture on this punk to save more lives?", apparently confident that the kind of people who would vote Greg Ball into the state senate would also feel comfortable torturing a 19-year-old with multiple gunshot injuries who was, as far as anyone knew at the time, bleeding out in a local emergency room.

The violent fantasies ubiquitously aired on talk radio and twittered on social media reflected an energized, uninhibited atavism among the unassuagably angry, the incurably stupid, and the relentlessly patriotic, if these can be considered three separate categories rather than just one. Added to serial misreporting of "breaking news" gleaned from "reliable sources," which panned out as vaporous rumor, the misidentification, by various media (Reddit, the New York Post, John King on CNN, Fox affiliate KDFW in Dallas-Ft. Worth), of, variously, a "dark-skinned man," a Saudi marathon onlooker, a Revere High School varsity track star, a missing Brown University student, and the actress Zooey Deschanel, as "suspects"—and, from the outset, the deft channeling of public hysteria into an urgent clamor for increased aerial and satellite surveillance, CCTV cameras on every city block, and arbitrary searches in the guise of "emergency exceptions" to constitutional restraints on law enforcement, exceptions that would allow, and inevitably normalize, the practice of shutting down an entire city to facilitate the capture of people suspected of crimes.


These fantasies reflected an unstable social pathology, an epidemic mixture of panic disorder, xenophobia, servile authority worship, and infantile narcissism, all of which easily accounted for 95 percent of "democratized" media commentary—the schoolyard insults, effusions of replacement envy, magical thinking, terminal self-revelation, and other indications of drastically impoverished inner lives commonly shared on reader threads dangling from news and opinion stories—as well as the standard onrush of cretinizing tabloid headlines, adventitious New Yorker think pieces, earnest HuffPost celebrity blogs, condescending liberal boiler plate in Salon and Slate, and the flatulent, valedictory musings of Times columnists and all-purpose cable personalities.

There appeared, almost as comic relief, an easily discernible, hysterically repressed undercurrent of sexual anxiety and category confusion in the coverage of the story's penultimate hours, as legible photographs of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and accounts of his incongruous back story, emerged from the shadows, revealing a Diesel model waiting to happen, who until very recently had seemed the kind of agreeably bird-brained, laid-back stoner vast numbers of people usually perceive as an ideal zipless fuck. Squaring this realization with the requisite murderous outrage and histrionic collective mourning over the deaths of strangers was a novel challenge for a public trained to judge things by appearances, by people employed to manipulate it with images of things to judge.


Now, voyager. Your appliance problem. It could conceivably happen that your fingerprints on your mother's Crock-Pot, or your signature on an expired warranty card, could land you in custody. It could also happen that some creepy neighbor, who remembers vividly seeing you toss your Crock-Pot into the non-recycle garbage bin, feels impelled by the same feeling of civic arousal that inspired so many virtuous citizens of the Third Reich to report the presence of Jews in the neighbor's attic. Thank god, as William Burroughs put it, for a country where nobody's allowed to mind his own business.

If an adroit government agency with no congressional oversight and conspiracy on the brain wishes to claim suspicion that you have ties to other Crock-Pots, or know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows about some extraneous facet of a dubious satanic plot being hatched in some faraway country where a whole seething population of bloody-minded barbarians spends every waking minute hating America for its freedoms and fucking goats, your life as you know it could fly right out the window before anyone informs you that you have a right to remain silent, a right to an attorney, that anything you say can and will be held against you—and not just in a court of law, since whoever detains you will leak it to the press and convict you in the court of public opinion.

Maybe you know your Miranda rights, but some unfortunate Americans don't, or forget them in the chaos of being arrested. In extreme situations, many people become disoriented and verbally incontinent. Miranda was put in the law in part to protect such people from incriminating themselves. Dzhakhar Tsarnaev, in near-fatal gunshot trauma from several hundred rounds fired on his hiding place by the Boston police, without provocation (let me add that I know all about the Boston police, first-hand, and if they're the noble figures we heard about 24/7 for a week, I am Marie of Romania) spilled for several hours until a judge read him his rights, at which point he immediately wised up, and clammed up. As you would too, if you happened to be him—and, further to your Crock-Pot dilemma, as you also would if you happened not to be, and found yourself accused of being, him, or associated with him because he went digging in your trash.

All the sound advice in the world may fail you, of course. Unless you have money and media access, the clandestine services and the police will probably do whatever they want with you, and deny it with deafening indignation if anyone ever calls them out about it. Our prison system is full of people who were Mirandized while unconscious, Mirandized by some agent whispering Miranda warnings under his breath on a different floor of the building, Mirandized while being pounded on the skull with a nightstick or zapped with 50,000 volts from a TASER, Mirandized in English when the only language they understood was Spanish or Chinese or Urdu.

One last tip. Next time you do your spring cleaning, why not donate that useless Crock-Pot from Mom to the Good Will? You might also donate unwanted microwave ovens, pressure cookers, toasters, space heaters, hair driers, broken juicers, TV sets, battery-operated toys, dildos, cell phones, Game Boys, Xboxes, Sony PlayStations, and similar items cluttering up the home. These seemingly innocuous objects could easily fall into the wrong hands, and a simple act of trash disposal could blow up in your face. Or somebody else's face. Let the Good Will take the rap for it.

Previously - My Big Fat Gay Wedding