Wednesday: Popular American Culture and Politics

The Escalation of Anonymity 

There are two types of acts in this world: those taken by people who claim credit for them, and those taken by people who don’t.  And whether it’s a good deed or a bad deed, anonymity always escalates it.

Here’s what I mean:

When two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, we were shocked, confused, horrified, scared, angered.  But at the time, we had no one to blame.  Part of handling tragedy is understanding context, and while any circumstances would make this act of terrorism “senseless,” during those first few days, it made no sense to anyone.  Was it domestic terrorism, or international terrorism?  How many people were involved?  Was it extremist religiosity or psychosis?  What could possibly make someone so angry, so sad, so deranged, as to commit such violence against strangers?  We just didn’t know – and so the act seemed that much more terrible, because its impetus is unknowable.  There was nothing that could be understood.

Think of drone strikes.  On this side of the button, they’re convenient, clean, and risk-free.  But on the ground “over there,” a drone strike is an anonymous attack that leaves rubble and wreckage with no human being to say, “I did this.  I take responsibility for these things that I see with my own two eyes.  I know that you know that I did this.”  And so victims shake their fists at a misunderstood and misinterpreted America.

Think of 9/11.  While hijackers’ names might have been uncovered, they too were unknowable.  They were brainwashed and betrayed by a false interpretation of faith.  They laid down their humanity to pick up a mantle of evil and hatred, and in doing so they lost their identity.  Because who is a man who does not stand for himself and his own ideas, but serves instead as an obedient sheep, without thought or insight or human conscientiousness? 

But the flip side of the coin rings true, too. 

An act of kindness, of greatness, of grace, seems infinitely more so when it is anonymous.  We write our own backstory for these eventualities.  The random act of kindness for the homeless man on the street does not expect repayment.  The artistry of a particularly poignant graffiti artist (Banksy, I’m looking at you), resonates further when it arrives with no signature.  Loaning a dollar to a stranger trying to get a quick subway fare before you spirit yourself away into the crowd can bring a certain heady elation.  I’d imagine the same premise holds true for Seal Team Six: if no one speaks up to take credit or begin defining events, it is the noble act of brave men who serve boldly.  The minute you give “shooter 1” a name, he begins to flirt with villainy. 

There’s a reason warriors don armor and face paint and uniforms.  Anonymity allows quiet accomplishment of both great and terrible deeds.

But in last Monday’s case, anonymity escalated cowardice.  These bombers did not claim their evil craft.  They went on with their lives as if nothing had happened, hiding from the truth of their actions and too cowardly to step forward.  What is the point of any act of rebellion if no one knows the message?  Who kills a child, a waitress, a student, and hides their face and their means and their meaning?  Who but an unknowable craven could remove the statement from the act, remove the reason from the senselessness, remove the why from the how?



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