An enduring image of despair

November 12, 2009

LAST WEEKEND, the media reported that the broad measure of unemployment in the United States has reached 17.5 percent. This is far higher than the "official" unemployment rate, which has broken through the double-digit barrier and now stands at 10.2 percent.

The 17.5 percent figure is the highest rate of unemployment and underemployment since the Great Depression, topping the 17.1 percent reached during the 1980s recession. It means that one out of every six workers was unemployed or underemployed in October.

The other major story of last weekend was that of Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the army psychiatrist who went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood in Texas, killing 13 and wounding almost 30 others.

The profile of Hasan emerging from news and police reports depicts a man angry at facing racist attacks and desperately trying to avoid deployment to a war zone. Reports from Hasan's family members, according to the New York Times, "suggest that Major Hasan complained of harassment by fellow soldiers for being a Muslim, that he hoped to get out of a deployment to Afghanistan, that he sought a discharge from the Army and that he opposed the American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Less than 24 hours after the shooting at Fort Hood, another horrific scene unfolded in Orlando, where a man named Jason Rodriguez opened fire in the office of the architecture firm from which he had been fired two years ago, killing one and wounding six. As he was being taken into police custody, a reporter called out to ask why he had done this, and Rodriguez responded, "Because they left me to rot."

What's the connection between these stories? The story of unemployment and hard times facing millions is closely interwoven with those of desperate individuals lashing out in acts of destruction and violence. The shootings in Fort Hood and Orlando follow on the heels of a deadly rampage earlier this year at a center for immigrants in upstate New York, and numerous reported murder-suicides across the country in which unemployed or financially desperate people have killed family members and themselves.

The social crisis today can still be gauged with broad statistics like unemployment, numbers of people receiving food stamps and other measures. Yet the visual effects of that crisis are not so straightforward. In our Great Recession of today, there may be no photos of desperately poor families, skinny and wanting for food. There may not yet be pictures of breadlines stretching for blocks.

Instead, these horrific outbursts of violence will be the iconic moments of today's Great Recession. The photos and videos of the aftermath of these rampages will be the images by which future generations remember these awful times.

What we are discovering is that the desperation haunting the poor and the working class is often silent and invisible to the outside world. This is especially true because of our society's blame-the-victim mentality and its lack of accessible mental health services. But all too quickly, that silence and invisibility morph into the opposite: violent outbursts in which people's pent-up frustration and rage rush forth as if from a bursting dam.

As long as the social crisis continues, we will see more of these incidents. It is important that the crisis not be understood in a purely economic sense. As the Fort Hood incident shows all too well, it is also a crisis brought on by the stress and exhaustion facing the millions directly affected by our government's multiple wars of aggression, and by the racism that continues to poison the lives of Arabs, Muslims, Blacks and other people of color in our society.

It is a crisis in which the vast resources of our society are systematically used for destructive purposes on the one hand, and on the other to prop up banks and the ultra-rich, who contribute nothing to the well-being of the majority.

There is another option. We can build a movement that gives voice to these cries of desperation and puts concrete demands forward to relieve millions of people of their silent suffering.

We can and must build a left in this country that stands unapologetically in favor of taking back these resources out of the hands of the parasites who run our government and our economy and using them instead to meet the needs of the people. We must come together and harness the simmering frustration of millions of individuals, channeling it into a positive force for social change, before one more person boils over into a fit of destructive rage.
Zach Zill, Washington, D.C.

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