BOWLING GREEN, KY--Last week, Bowling Green, KY was a town known for its brick esplanades and lush green fields. Wikipedia understood it as “a city in and the county seat of Warren County, Kentucky, United States” with a “population of 63,616.” A 1967 rock song credits “the fields down in Bowling Green” with having “the softest grass . . . ever seen.” The town has been home to the country’s second-largest public university, Western Kentucky University, since 1906; in 2014 it has ranked among Forbes Top 25 Best Places to Retire in the United States. As of last week, however, the town has accumulated a new connotation: that of (fabricated) bloodshed.
On MSNBC’s ‘Hardball,’ a night-time news show, Trump’s former campaign manager and current Counselor Kellyanne Conway justified Trump’s Muslim-ban through mention of a 2011 attack in the picturesque, suburban town of Bowling Green, KY: an event which, outside of the delusional realm of Trumpism never happened. While Conway has described her reference of the real arrest of two Iraqi terrorists as a massacre a “slip of the tongue,” top news sources have been quick to point out that her use of the phrase “Bowling Green Massacre” in three different interviews—Cosmopolitan and TMZ on January 29, 2017 and Hardball with Chris Matthews on February 2, 2017—makes this unlikely.
Despite the fact that most understand Conway’s “slip” as a deliberate deception, it is true that her statement, however preposterous, was not reaped from thin air. Her so-called “massacre” can be traced to the arrest of two Iraqi men, Mohanad Shareef Hammadi and Waad Ramadan Alwan in the town in 2011, an arrest which, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, led to the men being “charged with federal terrorism because they had attempted to send both money and weapons to al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
While he men never killed, or attempted to kill Americans on American soil, as Conway’s use of the term “massacre,” implies, it is true that the pair has been cited as directly responsible for a number of American deaths abroad as well as a number of other alarming charges; according to the United States Department of Justice, Hammadi plead guilty to “attempting to provide material support to terrorists and to AQI (al-Qaeda); conspiring to transfer, possess and export Stinger missiles; and making a false statement in an immigration application.” Alwan, his co-conspirator, pleaded guilty to “conspiring to kill U.S. nationals abroad; conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction (explosives) against U.S. nationals abroad; distributing information on the manufacture and use of IEDs; attempting to provide material support to terrorists and to AQI and conspiring to transfer, possess and export Stinger missiles.”
Statements which have escaped the terrorist investigations are jarring. The Department of Justice reports that a confidential human source, or CHS, used by the FBI’s Louisville Division recorded that Alwan spoke of his efforts to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq, by stating that “lunch and dinner would be an American.” Chilling statements about killing Americans abroad are, however, no excuse for lies about deaths perpetrated on American soil, and that Alwan’s fingerprints “were found on an unexploded IED (improvised explosive devices) found in Iraq” is no justification for misleading the public into believing bombs have been detonated here at home. However inhumane or alarming the men’s actions in Iraq were, to disregard the nearly 7,000 miles away from American soil at which they were carried out, as Conway did in not one, but three interviews, is to trample on the truth.
These sentiments were mirrored in the article which first notified me as to the Bowling Green Massacre “slip”; a slideshow of images from New York City “vigil for truth” ran alongside the story’s coverage of Conway’s error. The adoption of a fake vigil in response to Conway’s fake massacre was a most perfect blow; if she was going to meddle with such sacred ground as the killing of Americans at home, they seemed to say, we will retort with a fabrication of the sacred, as well.
Another article noted a different, more comical handling of the comment; a local restaurant in Bowling Green, the Home Café & Marketplace, had usurped the fake tragedy’s name as branding for a slice. Home Café & Marketplace owner Josh Poling commented that the pizza, which features blackened chicken, mac and cheese and jalapenos, “was on pace to set a one-day sales record,” according to the Chicago Sun News.
Hundreds of Americans took to Twitter, which appears to be the battleground of the day, to voice their anger. “Do you remember where you were during the #BowlingGreenMassacre? Share your stories. #NeverRemember,” tweeted Bowling Green NPS (National Park Service.) “These Bowling Green Massacre Jokes are a little too soon,” quipped @MikeCherven, “Out of respect, we should wait until it takes place.” Some fabricated stories explaining how they were spending their time when the massacre occurred, such as “just plain beth” who wrote that that fake attack in 2011 found her on “such a beautiful day, just me and my unicorn.” Even Chelsea Clinton, daughter of two-time president Bill Clinton and two-time presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, weighed in on the lie, tweeting that she was “Very grateful that no one seriously hurt in . . . the (completely fake) Bowling Green Massacre.”
Comedy has long been a powerful tool in our nation’s politics, with cartoons running back to the American Revolution and continuing to grace New Yorker covers today, and in the past year it has manifested as a way to come to terms with the difficult, or, or, just as Barack Obama demonstrated at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, joking that he and former Vice President Joe Biden had gotten so close—the friendship between Obama and Biden having been readily adopted by memes and friendship bracelets spelling out the politicians’ first names in little cube beads—that “in some places in Indiana, they won’t serve us pizza anymore,” a reference to Indiana’s controversial, and eventually amended Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allowed businesses to refuse to serve LGBT individuals on religious grounds, to combat the ridiculous with the absurd. While it is true that comedic treatment can have a razor’s edge for the joke’s subject, as President Donald Trump so angrily discovered with the fall’s hailstorm of SNL impersonations, it is also true that comedy is often conceived out of fear of the subject it depicts.
Barry Kaufkins, a professor from Bowling Green’s Western Kentucky University voiced a similar sentiment in his statements with Chicago Sun News. “It’s funny and we can laugh about it,” he said, “But I think a lot of the laughter is so we don’t cry. A lot of people are really worried about some of the rhetoric, not to mention the behavior, from this administration.” While I like to partake in political banter as much as the next American—answering a “My greatest fear is” Cards Against Humanity prompt with “The South” being among my favorite political quips—I am with Kaufkins in understanding that comedy, such as that evident in the public response to the Bowling Green Massacre comment, often springs from fear. As funny as it is to joke about the citation of bombs which never exploded and people who were never killed as part of the administration’s rhetoric, such joking serves to be both a reflection of and a distraction from the underlying message of Conway’s comment, which is the new administration’s alarming and blatant disregard for fact.
The dishonesty seen in Conway’s comment is no singularity, but is rather one of a string of such mistruths reported by the Trump Administration, among which are White House Press Secretary and Communications Director Sean Spicer’s comment that the turnout at Trump’s inauguration was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” a statement both easily disprovable with photos of the event and responsible for Conway’s quickly-ridiculed use of the term “alternative facts, and Spicer’s false claim that there had been a Muslim-orchestrated terrorist attack in Atlanta, which he made both on ABC’s This Week on January 29th and MSNBC’s Morning Joe on the 30th. Such false reporting has drawn the ire of many who understand the fettering of the press as a definitive earmark of authoritarian government.
Daily Banter reporter Chez Pazienza captured the sentiments of many fact-respecting Americans in his description of such fears in his recent coverage of Conway’s comment:
“Her comment about the nonexistent Bowling Green Massacre is a masterwork of calculated mendacity, the kind of thing that would be admirable if it weren't so dangerous . . . it was a strategy . . . to deliberately muddy the waters between fact and fiction so that the two are indistinguishable . . . doing so debases the truth to the point where it simply doesn’t matter anymore. This is important because the truth—cold, hard fact—is the Trump administration’s worst enemy, as it is the enemy of authoritarian governments in general.”
That like the jaw is the first place to strike a blow, the first thing in a free society to target is the press is a belief repeated by political blogger and Yale MBA student Kaivan Shroff, who tweets under the handle @KaivanShroff and who on February 3rd warned that “We should all take Kellyanne Conway’s Bowling Green Massacre lie VERY SERIOUSLY,” citing below his warning a clip taken from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website which explains the Reichstag Fire of 1927:
“On February 27, 1933, the German parliament (Reichstag) building burned down due to arson. The government falsely portrayed the fire as part of a Communist effort to overthrow the state. Using emergency constitutional powers, Adolf Hitler’s cabinet had issued a Decree for the Protection of the German People on February 4, 1933. This decree placed constraints on the press and authorized the police to ban political meetings and marches, effectively hindering electoral campaigning. A temporary measure, it was followed by a more dramatic and permanent suspension of civil rights following the February 27 burning of the parliament building.”
While this part, apparently too length to merit inclusion in his tweet, was clipped, it is notable that the Holocaust Memorial Museum depicted the chronicled arson as “a propaganda maneuver . . . exploited . . . to secure . . . approval for an emergency decree . . . popularly known as the Reichstag Fire Decree . . . [which] suspended the right to assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and other constitutional protections, including all restraints on police investigations.” In other words, Conway’s justification of Trump’s travel ban reads like the paper snowflake half of a page torn out of Hitler’s playbook, and is, as Shroff makes clear, an action which merits some sober rumination.
Maybe it is that I’ve been seeing too many commercials for the new Amazon series “The Man in the High Castle,” or the TV-adaption of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel of the same name, which depicts a dystopian, Nazi-ruled America, but I don’t believe I’m alone in my recognition of the show’s biting relevance; while I’d like to joke about how we should go about observing next year’s Bowling Green Massacre day—with greeting cards or chocolates? with special bread or king’s cake with a plastic bomb in place of the baby—or discuss plans of flying to Kentucky, a state I’ve never visited and admit to being somewhat wary of, for a slice of mac and cheese massacre-honoring pizza, which I could combine with visits to colleges I’ll never apply to, or otherwise justify with pseudo-rationale, the truth is I’m too shaken to do other than lament. Trump and Hitler’s campaigns both preyed on minorities, dealt empty promises of change, rode waves of anger, and worked actively to suppress the influence of fact. It is reasonable that we treat Conway’s comment with Gund bears, Our Lady of Guadalupe candles, and sorry whispers, for though her “massacre” wreaked no carnage on American lives, it was a massacre of truth, and a loss for the American people. It is likewise reasonable that we banter on Twitter, and eat mac and cheese pizza named in its honor, and sport sassy “I survived the Bowling Green Massacre and All I Got Was this Stupid T-Shirt” t-shirts, which can be purchased for 19.95 in black long-sleeved or short-sleeved on Etsy, because it was also a distortion of comical proportion.
Just as Revolution-era France had their never-spoken but much-felt “let them eat cake” and Nazi Germany the flouted promise of “brot und arbeit,” or bread and work, we too have a carbohydrate to accompany our unrest. Ours is a mac and cheese topped slice which bears an increasingly demanded ingredient which currently prices somewhere between that of Himalayan salt and rare black truffles. Ours is a mac and cheese topped slice which reminds us that we need not watch dystopian Netflix series to find authoritarian elements, but only look out our windows, or turn on the nightly news, or otherwise step out of bed to discover, beside that fleeting taste of truth from our more factual carbohydrate, evidence of that “future doom which is but to awake.”