Where were you when the United States Congress overpowered the Capitol Police and took a group of innocent schoolchildren hostage, refusing to release them unless their $12 trillion ransom demand was met?

If you saw the story as it broke last Friday, then you were on Twitter. The Onion, a satirical weekly newspaper, has played with the Twitter-as-1930s-radio-play format before — like earlier this year, when a nuclear fallout-powered, 500-foot-tall, zombified Osama Bin Laden flattened New York City. Even if you weren’t on Twitter, you might have heard the story anyway thanks to the legions of humorless killjoys who thought it was in bad taste. The Onion’s opening tweet accounted for most of the criticism: “BREAKING: Witness reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building.” An hour later, a hostage managed to send out camera phone footage of the “situation,” which The Onion also tweeted.

Heady stuff. The shocking headline certainly looked real enough. But then, you might also expect that if there really were a running gun battle and hostage situation in the center of our American democracy, then a few more sources might have reported the news. Given that anyone who read the tweet also necessarily had Internet access, they had all the information needed to discover it was a hoax.

Popular reactions to the story fell into three distinct groups. Some were completely unaware the story was actually fictitious — this group included the police, who apparently reported to the Capitol to see for themselves whether The Onion had really gotten the scoop of the century. Some, like the professionally angry and misinformed commentator Michelle Malkin, blamed the Democrats. The rest found the storyline — the gunshots on the House floor, John McCain attempting to fly the escape jet, a la Con Air, President Barack Obama picking up a bullhorn and taking over the police negotiations — simply inappropriate, lying somewhere on the other side of the problematic invisible line that divides acceptable and unacceptable comedy.

Why? The punch line of The Onion story was that Congress ultimately deadlocked over how to handle the ransom negotiation. And deadlock — taking political hostages — is easier now than ever before. In The Onion’s version, Speaker of the House John Boehner needed a ski mask and a gun; in the real world, a single senator can anonymously threaten to object to a bill and prevent it from reaching a vote. Political hostage takers don’t even have to risk their reputations anymore. In 2006, an unknown senator managed to put an anonymous hold on a bill that would have created a more transparent account of government spending.

Perhaps critics were upset that the joke implied violence toward children. But the 2010 Census showed 10 percent of American children under age 18 do not have health insurance, and the U.S. regularly trails almost all other wealthy, post-industrial democracies in matters such as life expectancy and infant mortality. The Onion claimed that Congress had terrorized a few dozen kids, but it certainly caused the deaths of many more in the course of everyday business. And while the 2010 health care reform package should eventually provide coverage for some of those children — a mere 37 years after former President Richard Nixon first proposed a national health insurance plan — court challenges and Republican opposition make it likely that many more will, through no fault of their own, be denied basic care.

That’s just one example, of course. You can replace that entire last paragraph with your issue of choice, from the dramatic to the mundane. The prestigious medical journal Lancet reckons that 650,000 civilians were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2006 because of the American war effort there, for example. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures that 3,000 people are killed in the U.S. every year by food-borne disease, and the House passed a bill last June that would cut $285 million from the Food and Drug Administration, which among other things is responsible for food safety inspections.

These are all things that are actually happening in the world around us and not just in the headlines of a fake newspaper from Wisconsin. The scale of the unnecessary destruction that’s implied by the seemingly normal and ordinary functioning of our society and politics is dizzying and immense. So, if The Onion’s Twitter-play was in such bad taste where does that leave everything else?

Neill Mohammad can be reached at neilla@umich.edu.

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