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Estimated Recovery Time

Author: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
October 23, 2013


In 1971, artist Chris Burden performed his iconic "Shoot" piece before a dozen friends gathered in the F-Space Gallery in Santa Ana, California. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt while standing in front of a white wall, a friend shot a copper jacket bullet from a .22-long rifle into Burden's upper left arm from a distance of 15 feet. The bullet was intended to merely knick the arm, but it went clean through, sending Burden to the hospital and requiring that he report the "accident" to the police. Burden refrained from revealing exactly why he undertook the drastic act, though he noted that the Vietnam War played some part. He left the piece open to interpretation, later acknowledging, "I wanted to be taken seriously as an artist." (There is a fascinating retrospective of Burden's career at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan that runs through January 14.)

Burden's performance piece of deliberate self-harm comes to mind when watching the behavior of policymakers on Capitol Hill throughout the 16-day federal government shutdown saga. Unfortunately, unlike Burden's one-time action, Congress's purposeless drama will be staged yet again in three months.

The policymakers most directly responsible for the shutdown (scores of House Republicans, and a few on the Senate side) apparently believe that they can achieve the three goals of all politicians -- get elected and re-elected, then earn power and wealth through political connections once retired -- without compromising on their principles, since they are relatively insulated from the harm inflicted by their manufactured dysfunction. This disconnect recalls how Director of National Intelligence James Clapper characterized Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini's decision-making calculus: "You know, his view of the world may not be necessarily fact-based, particularly when it comes to internal conditions in his country."

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