A Bridge vs Troubled Water

For several days now, news analysis has been dominated by the mini-scandal of whether New Jersey Governor Chris Christie actually ordered the closing of several lanes of the heavily-traveled George Washington Bridge to punish the Mayor of Fort Lee NJ, or whether his aides did it behind his back. That the lanes were arbitrarily closed and caused several days of traffic jams is beyond dispute. Today’s NY times summarizes:

… on Sept. 9, a police commander … led a crew that set up a long, curving line of traffic cones at Fort Lee’s southern approach to the upper level of the George Washington Bridge. The cones funneled drivers normally served by three tollbooths into just one. … Backups began, and soon much of Fort Lee’s three square miles became a montage of idling cars and collective exasperation.

Workers were hours late to their jobs. Emergency vehicles were slowed. And the police were baffled. So was Mr. Sokolich. Who ordered this? It was the first day of school, the anniversary of Sept. 11 was two days away and there was colossal gridlock outside the world’s busiest bridge.

So began four strange days in Fort Lee.

Why the bridge lanes were closed is up for debate. MSNBC’s arch Rachel Maddow conjectured that it stemmed from a dispute over state supreme court justices but now others at MSNBC & Josh Marshall at TPM wonder if it was linked to a billion dollar real estate development nearby. Maybe Christie was just channeling TV’s tough guy governor Peter Florrick (played by Chris Noth). The real story may never come out.

The bridge closure story certainly resonates with those of us who have ever been stuck in traffic, but so far the mainstream news has reported the barest of facts of a far more important story – that of the accidental poisoning of the water supply of some 300,000 West Virginians. One would think that being without potable water for days or weeks would resonate with the public at large, but while some stories of tragedy go predictably viral – for example, the white-woman-in-distress story – the public and the media seem perfectly able to compartmentalize and ignore the suffering of large groups of people if they consider them to be sufficiently unlike themselves.

West Virginians have long been the butt of jokes about inbreeding, backwardness and poverty. When I worked in PA, one joke making the rounds was, What do you call a pretty girl in WV?A visitor. I worked with an attractive and intelligent young woman from WV, and she had a picture on her desk of her several attractive sisters, so I knew that wasn’t true, but jokes don’t have to be true to keep going. Another joke claimed that a hurricane blew through WV and caused millions of dollars of improvements. So I’m not exactly surprised that the water issue hasn’t gotten top coverage.

January is often the time of year for predictions, and usually those predictions fall flat. But though we try to quickly forget victims of hurricanes, derechos, oil spills, school shootings, tsunamis, radioactive accidents and chemical explosions, it seems appropriate to observe that we are being offered fair warning about our future.

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