he last 15 days of August are traditionally a mass media black hole. News outlets are left to sniff out blood trails. Occasionally terrorists oblige August hankerings, but this year they exhausted their industry earlier in the summer and have (momentarily) set aside chaos.
The American political campaign, that great bestiary of noise, occupied so much of June and July’s acreage that by August even avid onlookers sought a break from the howling.
Worse still, even nature seemed reluctant to cooperate, shy on gaudy storms and similar kinds of easily transmitted visual ominousness. Not a hurricane so far to speak of in the Americas, amazingly, and therefore no pack rat following to track the swirl.
Just as stunning, no airliner has recently obliged the needy hordes, falling from or exploding in the sky, producing expressions of grief and press conferences full of speculation and finger pointing.
News gets antsy without a tonic of hyperbole, becoming something of a dance queen without a ball to attend.
Thankfully, Italy intervened, tossing out a great fat bone in the form of an Apennines earthquake. It wasn’t the worst of quakes — the whole of Italy’s spiky spine and lumbar still awaits its “big one” — but friction enough to cause death and grief, to bury old folk and babies, some heroically rescued to give hungry media a vaguely substantive meal while it awaited if not hoped for something far more ghoulish.
Given a tourist industry based on the selling of bucolic landscapes it’s easy to forget Italy’s seismic appetites and how underground plates continue pushing at it from the south, hoping eventually to make Africa and Europe into a single territory. Stick around a few dozen million years and you may even hear about that breaking news (“Europe vanishes!”), along, perhaps, with news of the return of pterodactyls, which would fill up a number of news cycles.
It’s not that people intrinsically like disaster – they don’t – only that it affords a kind of communion through shared woe, although the real woe is usually borrowed from those enduring it directly. Life can be humdrum without pointed reminders of mortality on a large scale, a role mass media has increasingly come to claim as its own, a vendor of vivid if not exaggerated dramatics in a time when theater and film — fiction as a whole — no longer suffices. The best snuff film is carnage, and it’s far more poignant than any special effect.
The easily overlooked irony is that just about every man- or nature-made disaster (plagues, asteroids, terrorists, atomic blasts) has already been concocted and played out to audiences in thousands of action films over many decades. We fictionalized our worse fears in considerable detail, making them available for copying and pasting onto a real world deprived if not contemptuous of rules of engagement.
Between the Enlightenment and World War I, civilians were off limits to war-wagers, that task limited to soldiers. Then bombs were dropped by hand on London. Within 20 years the brief civilian exemption ended, replaced by new medievalism that included death camps, atomic bombs and the absurdly real possibility of war fought with earth itself as the ultimate casualty.
“Moderns” incorporate this worrisome folly in ways they can’t even imagine. It’s stitched into their genes, and into mass media’s, which acts as both harvester and feeder eager to replenish a collective uneasiness it has memorized as the norm.
Which leave us as rapt as ever, waiting for bombs and buried babies, until they fall from favor and we get back to awaiting the next lurch — storm or bomb or act of terror — always on the lookout