BY MANASA GOGINENI
Belgian artist Rene Magritte is well-known for using his skills to explore philosophical concepts. In his surrealist painting “The Treachery of Images,” he depicts a realistically shadowed and sculpted pipe, under which the caption “this is not a pipe” appears. This contradiction is absurd. If an object looks like a pipe, it is a pipe. Right?
But perceptions can be deceiving. A string of poorly constructed, unexploded pipe bombs mailed to prominent political figures last week has made this apparent.
In total, 14 homemade pipe bombs were sent to Democratic government officials critical of the current president, including Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Other targets included CNN’s headquarters in New York and philanthropist George Soros.
Less than 48 hours later, a suspect was arrested and charged with five federal crimes, including threatening former presidents and assaulting federal officers. Although investigators are still trying to determine whether his bombs would have detonated, they did contain explosive material — it is clear that this mailer did not just intend to just make a political statement but also sought to destroy his recipients. And bombs have been on his mind for a while — his lengthy criminal history includes already being arrested for a bomb threat.
The suspect is a virulent Donald Trump supporter. He drives a white van whose windows are plastered with images condemning CNN and praising Trump with zeal; other pictures include internet memes on Benghazi and a photograph of Hillary Clinton with a red target on her face. His internet presence is just as colorful — the Washington Post says that he mentioned George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama more than 20 times each on his Twitter feed and threatened Native American users.
What’s most important to unravel is that this man is not stable and at the very least not a mastermind. He lied about his mother’s job and his own education status in a previous lawsuit, left behind a wealth of clues following the mailings, and sent one of his homemade pipe creations to Robert De Niro — an actor-activist who is critical of Donald Trump yet has no actual capacity to truly impact the American government. The suspect’s lawyer, on CNN, shared that the suspect seemed to have a low I.Q. and significant emotional problems. Slate said he described the suspect as a “14-year-old in an adult’s body.”
Because the suspect is so obsessively outspoken about his political beliefs, it’s only natural that conspiracy theories have stemmed from his scheme. A popular one, shared widely before the suspect was arrested, was the “false flag” theory — in this case, pundits such as Anne Coulter and Candace Owens claimed that Democrats coordinated the bombs in order to make Republicans appear radicalized right before midterm elections on November 6, thus garnering their party more votes. Despite the suspect’s clear anti-Democratic sentiments, conservatives attempted to shift the blame off themselves for being associated with the pipe bombs through this theory. The suspect was open about his devotion to Donald Trump. Conceivably, demagogue Trump’s angry rhetoric has mobilized already unstable people such as this suspect to pursue their political aims.
Crude as the bombs were, they still carried the same political weight as their expert counterparts. They binded to a heated chain of political events and discourse that have already begun to reshape and reconfigure American attitudes.
It’s essential to note that this recent episode is not an isolated data point; it has only received more extensive media coverage than other events. Last month, letters containing a lethal poison were discovered in mail sent to the Pentagon and addressed to Secretary of State Jim Mattis and Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson. Last Wednesday, a man threatened to blow up the Grand Traverse County Republican Headquarters in Michigan. These deadly attempts transcend party lines.
As the Republican and Democrat sides grow increasingly polarized under Trump’s unpredictable administration, individual citizens are latching on to Trump’s hateful rabble-rousing and perpetuating even more hate. Party loyalty tends to override logic when serious events like the mailing of these bombs occur, which redirects the country’s focus away from finding a solution and towards finding a scapegoat.
Perhaps this is not just a pipe (bomb) but a herald of a more urgent issue.
Rene Magritte’s reasoning for why his work is “not a pipe” is that it is only a painting of a pipe — not a pipe itself. Yet even though these bombs did not prove lethal, in their potential gravity they are still emblematic representations of real bombs.
Although one cannot smoke out of an illustrated pipe, it still carries the same symbolic significance and meaning of a tangible, concrete pipe. And in the same way that an illustrated pipe is therefore theoretically equivalent in magnitude to a real-life pipe, an unexploded pipe bomb can be as dangerous and powerful as a successful one due to its intention and purpose. While the pipe bombs didn’t explode, they didn’t have to — our rhetoric certainly has.