Who is Minding the Store?

Back when I was a kid, at about the time one first reads the likes of Hemingway, I became aware not of the Spanish Civil War–that was old hat–but the idea that foreigners would actually migrate to fight in it. I knew that Germany used the conflict as a proving ground, of sorts, for its developing weaponry–and Picasso’s “Guernica,” I have always thought, did a good job of depicting just how unsavory the results of such behavior could be. From this vantage point I seem to recall that the Soviets could only temporarily match the Nazis in funneling materiel into the war, and that the Republican forces ranged against Franco came increasingly to rely on the intervention of International Brigades. But it was when I was barely of draft age myself, after finishing with Robert Jordan in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” that the notion of travelling overseas all on one’s own to fight for a foreign cause first took root in my consciousness.

There is romance in the endeavor–at least when someone of Hemingway’s stature writes about it–a dash and derring-do that is much more swashbuckling than irresponsibility. Seriously–who in their right mind would travel halfway around the world to fight for, say, the Nazis?

Know where I’m going with this? I doubt it.

The recent disappearance into Syria of British schoolgirls Shamima Begum and Amira Abase, both 15, and Kadiza Sultana, 16–all three of the Bethnal Green academy in east London–has merely highlighted what the UK’s top counter-terrorism police officer has said: Sixty British women and girls, including 18 teenagers, are believed to have travelled to Syria to join Islamic State (ISIS) militants. Worse, deputy assistant commissioner Helen Ball, senior national coordinator for counter-terrorism, further revealed that five of them are believed to be 15 to 16 years old.

Begum, Abase and Sultana all took the same Turkish Airlines flight out of Gatwick airport to Istanbul on February 17.

When kids today describe something as an “epic fail”–if indeed they still do–it is this sort of thing they are referring to. I’m fairly certain, sadly, that these girls are only now discovering just how susceptible they have been to some sickening manipulation. I’ll be damned if I can call it recruitment.

People under the age of 18, famously–at least in the West–are not allowed to vote or fight in the armed forces or even sign binding contracts. But you can bet that these girls cast a vote in their flight to Istanbul, and that they signed perhaps the most binding contract of their lives by then joining ISIS. And had they been boys, you could also bet that ISIS would arm them for some form of combat.

So this fail, then, is not strictly on the girls’ part; they have, in turn, been failed themselves. Somehow, they have not been protected from the rash–almost hormonal–decisions that so many teenagers are wont to make. Who is minding the proverbial store?

Let me just say this: I’ve said in the past that, in the nineties, our family lived for five years in Cabo San Lucas. But the very first time either my wife or I attempted to travel with kids alone–and we were not made aware of this until actually at the ticket counter–we discovered that the airline required notarized permission from the parent not travelling. If you ask me, Turkish Airlines fell down, so to speak, on the job.

Some neighborhood kid gets on a flight somewhere and winds up, epically, in Auckland instead of Oakland. It’s the kind of thing one reads about in the local paper, right? Well, you could if the Valley Voice covered it.

The Visalia Times-Delta is now nothing more than the shill in a corporate magic trick purported to be local journalism. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this–just who is minding the store over there? And where, exactly, is the store itself? One can visit the paper’s Visalia premises, but the Times-Delta is owned by Gannett, which is based in Virginia while operating out of Arizona. Think at least the editor is a local? Think again.

Executive Editor Pete Wevurski lives in the Salinas area–or, more properly, within the 831 area code–where he is also the Executive Editor of the Salinas Californian. This is why, for instance, the front page of the February 27 Times-Delta features a Salinas homicide story. It is true that the victim was a Visalia native, but not even this tenuous connection explains why, in the weekend edition (February 28-March 1) of the Times-Delta’s “Local” page, the weather on the central coast was so prominently featured.

This is the first paragraph of the first column I wrote for the Valley Voice, back on June 6, 2013:

Mainstream media, reduced at least to the level of local newspapers, has placed a noose around the neck of our news. Rather than opening a vast panorama of choice, in the same vein as the Internet, local newspapers often constrict our news horizon. Consider the national web of smaller, corporate-owned papers: apart from sports, many lift news stories, and often truncate them, from either the wire or a company home office source. Your hometown paper, in other words, might be entirely from someplace else.

I don’t know if the Visalia Times-Delta will ever come back–by which I mean a return to being, truly, a local newspaper. I’m not certain it’s possible. I just hope all those poor, deluded girls can somehow find their way home again.

Joseph Oldenbourg

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