The scariest thing on television

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If you’ve decided to cancel HBO now that Game of Thrones is finished, let me suggest you wait long enough to watch all of the network’s terrifying miniseries, Chernobyl. It is, hands down, the best, and most frightening, show I’ve watched on TV in a very long time.

Thirty-three years ago, on April 26, 1986, the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the Ukrainian city of Pripyat exploded, releasing catastrophic amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. An exclusion zone spreading 19 miles in all directions from the ruined reactor site has been deemed unsafe for human habitation for the next 20,000 years.

Because the disaster and its effects were so unbelievable, show creator Craig Mazin has said it was essential for the show to be as historically accurate as possible:

If I have a choice between going for something that sounds dramatic or something that sounds less dramatic, I actually try to opt for less because I think what is dramatic about Chernobyl doesn’t need extra.

Believe it or not, this is the restrained version of what actually happened because believe it or not, there are some accounts where it gets even worse.

Some of those who would know best, who lived through that era of Soviet life, have hailed the show for its remarkable realism.

Chernobyl is a simultaneously horrifying, inspiring, and infuriating chronicle of the catastrophe and the Soviet government’s response. As National Review puts it:

The show is not fun to watch, unless you take a certain grim satisfaction in watching Soviet Union officials squirm in their seats, so terrified of the consequences of telling the truth that they assent to brazen lies that will lead to the painful deaths of hundreds and perhaps thousands of their countrymen.

Chernobyl  is horrifying in showing the effects of acute radiation poisoning, burns, and runaway nuclear energy seeming to scorch the very sky. It is inspiring in depicting the extraordinary heroism of first-responders, medical staff, miners, scientists, and officials brave enough to force their superiors to face a reality they were desperately trying to ignore.

And it is infuriating in laying bare the cravenness of those bureaucrats and leaders unwilling to acknowledge, even actively deny, facts they deemed politically or professionally dangerous. It is this last point which makes Chernobyl especially relevant to our times. Back to National Review:

But it’s worth keeping in mind that shameless dishonesty in order to avoid embarrassment is a human trait, not just a Socialist one. In almost any governmental system on earth, those running the system can blur their sense of their personal interest and the national interest.

A bad leader will prioritize his image above all else and see every issue through that lens. A bad leader will deny the seriousness of threats because speaking honestly about an emerging danger would require admitting being wrong earlier. A bad leader will insist that a failing solution is really working. When challenged, those types of leaders focus on finding scapegoats instead of solutions.

Or, as venerable horror author Stephen King tweeted yesterday:

A deadly burden we expect others to bear

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Memorial Day is behind us, the day when we honor those members of our armed forces who made the supreme sacrifice for their country. It is right that we do so.

But as I was reminded last Sunday, those we honor on Memorial Day were asked to do more for us than I think we are willing to acknowledge. When they agree to put on the uniform, we implicitly ask those men and women to be willing to die for the rest of us. That’s the easy one.

We also ask them to be willing to kill on our behalf. That truth is harder.

It is a truth that the great American writer Mark Twain knew all to well, and in his 1906 short story, “The War Prayer,” starkly laid at the feet of a country swept up by war-fueled patriotic fervor. Take a few minutes and let Twain’s words sink in:

As a society, this is a moral burden we today seem all too eager to deny, to cavalierly place on others’ shoulders with a glib “Thank you for your service.” But this is a hard, crucial thing we have a duty to acknowledge, especially those of us who never served, or those who, like some present and past presidents, did all they could to actively avoid service.

This is the reality that veteran journalist James Fallows wrote about in the pages of The Atlantic, describing a “chickenhawk nation” in which we treat our military

both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules.

These things we ask others to do, for us and in our names, are especially important for all of us to remember as we hear, once again, war drums sounding from Washington. This time the target may be Iran. A few months ago it was Venezuela. Before that North Korea. Before that Syria. Before that Iraq. You get the picture.

The patriotic holidays that have come to define our summers, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, are opportunities for us to reflect on the burdens we ask others to shoulder on our behalf. And maybe, just maybe, to accept some responsibility for them ourselves.

Terror where we pray: What gets attacked?

Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana (AP Photo)
Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana (AP Photo)

 

Three weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, suicide bombers attacked three churches in Sri Lanka in coordinated acts of terrorism. More than 250 people were killed and some 500 injured.

Two days later, ISIS claimed responsibility, though it remains unclear just how involved in the plot the organization really was. The Sri Lankan government had detailed advance warning of the plot and failed to act to prevent them.

Closer to home, in early April a series of arson attacks targeted African American churches across a rural parish of Louisiana. A suspect, the 21-year-old son of a deputy sheriff, was charged with hate crimes in the incidents.

Later that month, a 19-year-old member of an evangelical Christian church entered a synagogue outside San Diego and opened fire, killing one and wounding three others. In a manifesto he posted online, the suspect rooted his actions in biblical justification, belief in his own salvation, and a narrative that blames Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion. He has been charged with federal hate crime and civil rights violations.

All of these incidents, as well as the mass shooting at mosques in New Zealand in March, got me wondering how frequently American places of worship are the targets of terrorist attacks, and what those incidents might tell us about the nature of terrorism in the United States. All of the data I am going to discuss below comes from the Global Terrorism Database maintained at the University of Maryland.

By stateFrom 1998 through 2017 there were 559 separate terrorist incidents in the United States. Of those, 80, or 14 percent, targeted places of worship. 2016 was the worst year for terrorist attacks on places of worship, with 23 separate incidents, though there were several years (1998, 2000-2003, 2006-2007) in which no terrorist attacks on religious targets were recorded.

As the chart here shows, attacks occurred in 28 states, with the highest number recorded in New York (10) followed by California (9), Florida (8), and Texas (8). The others in the dataset come in with five or fewer separate attacks. More noteworthy, however, are the kinds of places of worship that are targeted.

Targeting 2The most commonly targeted places of worship are not churches but mosques, accounting for 37 percent of all incidents during this 20-year period. Synagogues account for 17 percent of targets, and African American churches another 10 percent. Other churches account for 33 percent of cases. Others (Sikh and Hindu temples) make up the final three percent.

What does this tell us? That two-thirds of all terrorist attacks targeting places of worship are directed against religious or racial minorities.

Attacks on these minority places of worship have also been the deadliest. In 2012, six people were killed at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, a case I’ve written about before. In 2014, three were killed in shootings at a Jewish community center and retirement home in Overland Park, KS. In 2015, nine were killed at an African American church in Charleston, S.C. In 2016, two were killed in a shooting targeting an imam in New York City.

When the data is updated through 2018 we will be able to add the killing of 11 worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh to this awful list.

Only two other fatal attacks on places of worship were recorded between 1998 and 2017. In 2008, two were killed in a shooting at a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, TN, by perpetrators targeted the congregation because of its liberal social and political positions. And in 2017, one person was killed and eight wounded in a shooting at a church in Antioch, TN. There was no specific motive behind this attack.

Of the 80 attacks over the 20-year period covered here, only two were the work of Muslim extremists or jihadi-inspired perpetrators. No one was killed or injured in either incident.

What all these attacks suggest is that in the United States, terrorism targeting places of worship is consistent with the standard truth about American terrorism that I have been writing about since almost the beginning of this blog. Most of it is perpetrated by white nationalist or racist extremists on the far right of the political spectrum.

And thus a familiar pattern gets that much more familiar.

Winter was a MacGuffin

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Really, after all this time, is that all we get?

Obligatory spoiler warning — I’m about the talk about last night’s episode of Game of Thrones. Quit reading now if you haven’t seen it and intend to catch it later.

The White Walkers, and the dire warning that “Winter is coming” have been a constant of the both the novels, and the HBO production since the literal beginning. It was the looming existential threat that put the worldly machinations of noble houses and their quests for power into perspective.

The Night King, as leader of the White Walkers and reanimator of the legions of the dead, was the very embodiment of that fatal, destined winter. Until he wasn’t.

Thanks to Arya’s mad ninja assassin skills and her trusty, well-travelled Valyrian-steel dagger, the Night King and the existential annihilation he represented was gone without so much as a whisper of explanation of his nature, motivation, or purpose. After driving the plot for seven seasons (and five novels and counting), the Night King and his minions are ushered off the stage, destined to be forgotten in the final scramble for the Iron Throne.

Frankly, I found it all deeply unsatisfying. Which is when I realized that the Night King was no more than a MacGuffin. In fiction, a MacGuffin (a term coined, depending on whom you believe, by famed filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock), is a plot device — an object, goal, or other motivator — that protagonists pursue but with little or no narrative explanation itself.

As the team over at Slate remarks, this captures the Night King perfectly:

[O]ther than Bran’s little monologue last episode about destroying human memory, I never really understood what the Night King’s motivation or backstory was. Yes, he was created by the Children of the Forest for … some reason, but I feel like his villain arc was a very icy one note.

That’s because his villain arc was peripheral to the real plot. Instead, like any good MacGuffin, the point of the Night King and his permanent winter was not about the Night King and his permanent winter at all. His role was to drive the other characters, shaping their motivations and actions.

The team at The Atlantic understood this as well, and were less enthusiastic about it:

The White Walkers were a means to unite ice and fire—Jon and Daenerys—and build an alliance in the North in order to sort out all the lingering conflict in the South. They served no plot purpose other than to threaten to bring about the apocalypse, and the only thing more boring, story-wise, than defeating the Night King would have been letting him win and cover the world in mute zombies.

In this the Night King joins other famous examples of film MacGuffins, the shiny briefcase in Ronin, the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the grail in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Maltese Falcon in the classic film of the same name. In each of these examples, the nature of the MacGuffin is immaterial to the actual plot of the story.

For me that’s kind of a drag. I really did want to know more about the Night King (Just like I really, really wanted to know what was in that shiny briefcase in Ronin. It still annoys me that Robert De Niro’s character keeps the secret to himself at the end.)

Still, I guess it makes sense. George R.R. Martin has made blowing up the tropes of heroic fantasy a central element of this series. So dumping the supernatural army of the undead, whose main point seems to have been to take most of Daenerys’ army and dragons away, yanks the story out of traditional swords-and-sorcery territory and re-anchors it once and for all in the down-and-dirty politics and intrigue of dynastic succession.

Fine. But I’m still going to miss the Night King.

Farewell … We hardly knew ye.