Where was the NSA? That’s the question former State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren recently asked at his We Meant Well blog — and it couldn’t be a smarter one. After all, the Isla Vista killer, Elliot Rodgers, made both his own sense of disturbance and his urge for “retribution” against women quite public before he went on his terror spree. Shouldn’t the agency, whose unofficial motto (“collect it all”) seems to be meant quite literally, have noticed his messages to the world?
Given the ridiculous mass of human communications the NSA collects, both domestically and globally, perhaps not. But one reason its employees might not have been paying attention was that Rodgers wasn’t an Islamic jihadist-in-the-making or an al-Qaeda wannabe. He didn’t fall among the few fringe figures since 9/11 who have committed domestic acts of Islamic terror, including Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan, who slaughtered 13 at Fort Hood, Texas, the Tsarnaev brothers who briefly terrorized Boston, or Faisal Shahzad who managed to get a car bomb into New York’s Times Square. Of course, it’s worth remembering that the agency American taxpayers support to the tune of almost $11 billion a year and that has made surveillance in the name of “safety” part of the American way of life somehow missed them, too! Still, for the NSA one thing is clear enough: the Elliot Rodgers of this world may blow Americans away in numbers that put the casualty counts for what we call “domestic terrorism” to shame, but they aren’t considered “terrorists” and the war they are engaged in — against women — doesn’t qualify for any “war on terror.”
The numbers tell a grim story when it comes to this sort of terror in American life. Among other things, if you’re adding up casualties in this unnamed war, 1,500 women are murdered annually by their husbands or boyfriends. That adds up to a 9/11-sized disaster every two years. On the other side of things, in the wake of the killings in Isla Vista, California, and without the NSA stepping in to botch things up, the response to such terror has been extraordinary, and Rebecca Solnit, whose new Dispatch Book, Men Explain Things to Me, focuses on just what violence against women means in our world, offers her usual highly original look at ways in which women (and some men) are reconceiving our world and the horrors in it. Tom Engelhardt
Our words are our weapons
The feminist battle of the story in the wake of the Isla Vista massacre
By Rebecca Solnit
It was a key match in the World Cup of Ideas. The teams vied furiously for the ball. The all-star feminist team tried repeatedly to kick it through the goalposts marked Widespread Social Problems, while the opposing team, staffed by the mainstream media and mainstream dudes, was intent on getting it into the usual net called Isolated Event. To keep the ball out of his net, the mainstream’s goalie shouted “mental illness” again and again. That “ball,” of course, was the meaning of the massacre of students in Isla Vista, California, by one of their peers.
All weekend the struggle to define his acts raged. Voices in the mainstream insisted he was mentally ill, as though that settled it, as though the world were divided into two countries called Sane and Crazy that share neither border crossings nor a culture. Mental illness is, however, more often a matter of degree, not kind, and a great many people who suffer it are gentle and compassionate. And by many measures, including injustice, insatiable greed, and ecological destruction, madness, like meanness, is central to our society, not simply at its edges.