Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Making Excuses

A few months ago I severely sprained my ankle while leading my hometown team to glory by draining a three-pointer at the buzzer while simultaneously diving to save the life of a little crippled girl who tumbled from the grandstand missing a step on my way out the office to dinner break. I ended up going to the emergency room as a patient for the first time in my life.

I recognized most of the people and families there as the kind of folks who would not have health care insurance: the elderly on fixed incomes, young black and Hispanic people, crazies and half-crazies. I remembered reading that the poor often use emergency rooms as primary care.

At last a no-nonsense nurse called me into her office and started doing my paperwork. She asked me a list of questions, one of which was, "on a scale of one to ten, how bad is the pain."

I thought about it and imagined 10 as torture and said, "about a five." She actually paused and looked up at me for the first time.

"No one ever says five," she said. Everyone says "ten."

"Do I get better drugs if I say ten?" I tried to make a joke out of it, but when your ankle is throbbing and the size of a softball, humor doesn't come readily.

"No, actually," she replied. "Then we know you're just here for the drugs."

But later I thought about that; people who are accustomed to being ignored and overlooked and forgotten -- or who always assume that they will be so in any situation -- of course are going to say whatever ails them is as bad as possible.

And there was an evident shell game playing out in that emergency room, between the dedicated but cynical staff, trying to weed people out who really didn't need to be there, and the clients, trying to fight their way in, deservedly or not, because they felt they had no other alternative. If you tell them you're in the most intense pain possible, they can't send you home with an Ace bandage and an aspirin.

Just so, when I started working in the newsroom in this town, I would hear ambulance calls for "patient vomiting blood." How horrible! I never heard that all the years I was a cop reporter in West Chester. But here, there seemed to be an epidemic of it. Then someone told me, the poor people who used the ambulance like a taxi to the doctor's office had discovered it was the one thing you could say that the dispatchers couldn't ignore -- because what if it was true? But if they showed up and all you had was a bad fever or the flu, you always could say, "well, I was vomiting blood, but I got better." So it was not like saying you had sliced your arm off or something.

I thought about all that in the context of New Orleans, and the lurid stories that flooded the press in the days after the hurricane struck, most of which later turned out to have been wholly fabricated. Murder, mass rape, baby-rape, 1,200 drowned in a single school, the living devouring the corpses of the dead. I even read the hoary cliche "bodies stacked like cordwood." All of this was reported with breathless urgency in the news. I watched Geraldo melt down on Fox News. Oprah Winfrey told the world that in the Superdome "gangs banded together and had more ammunition, at times, than the police."

The media's gulibility was limitless, it seems, but it didn't surprise me. What intrigued me was that the TV newscasters hadn't made up those stories; some anonymous someone had told them all that BS. I wonder, sometimes, if the same effect wasn't at work that I saw in the emergency room or heard on the police scanner.

Certainly the poor folks in New Orleans knew the experience of never getting attention unless they could conjure up the worst possible tale of woe. Was this litany of gothic horrors the equivalent of the 10 on the pain scale or the vomiting blood ambulance call?

If so, I guess the big media doesn't remember what it was like to work in the copy desk trenches with one ear on the police scanner, or to spend a night in a big city emergency room waiting hall on an average night. I doubt Geraldo or Oprah has had that experience lately.

CNN claimed snipers were taking potshots at helicopters trying to evacuate patients from hospitals. This rumor was more nefarious than most, since it actually cost people's lives when downtown hospitals halted evacs for a day for fear of (non-existent) sniper fire.

What was interesting to me, though, was that, in the interval between when the "shooting at helicopters" report was aired and when it was debunked, a little cottage industry grew up among the "liberal" commentaries that not only accepted the rumor but justified the horror.

I read this on any number of blogs, as well as in my local "socialist" underground newspaper. This tragic situation wasn't the fault of the people taking pot-shots at whirlybirds, the story went. They were just engaging in a natural and justified reaction to a problem created by, and exacerbated by The Man!

Like this:

There was talk of survivors shooting at cops and helicopters, but I never got much verification of that. I saw some first-hand accounts saying that it was a huge problem, others saying that this rarely happened at all. But this article argues that the New Orleans PD has a history of corruption and violence towards African-Americans, so maybe there was necessary or paranoid gunfire going out.

Or this:

The people shooting are the drug addicts who haven't gotten their fix in days. Even if you are Joe Heroin addict and you go and get help, the hospitals give you Heroin to survive ... these people don't have it, so they are *freaking* out, looting drug stores for something similar and shooting at helicopters that they think are out to get them. I think we should have a drug-a-thon and drop drugs on the city.

When the stories turned out to be false, that excuse-making dried up. But it strikes me as amusing that certain voices were so eager to cast a protective cover over any sort of anti-social psychopathy that they reflexively exercised their brains to justify crimes that hadn't even been committed. It was madman's logic.

But, y'know, if they had been committed, it all would have been the fault of Halliburton and Shrubbie.

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