Liam Day offers his final thoughts on last week’s terrible events and our responsibility to not just remember them, but to understand them in all their complexity.
It’s been a week like few others in Boston’s history. One might have to go all the way back to the Revolutionary War to chronicle events that kept this city enthralled as completely as did last Monday’s bombing of the Boston Marathon and the manhunt that ensued to catch the perpetrators.
Now that we can get on with our lives, it may be worth pausing before we do to reflect on what the recent events mean, not in a geopolitical sense, but in an existential one, in how the memory of them will become absorbed into the city’s narrative, in how the memory of them will become part of our own personal narratives.
Where were you when the bombs went off? The question is likely to be asked of many Boston residents over the coming months, years and decades. And I suspect that as time passes more and more people will answer that question by exaggerating how close they were to the bomb site.
Inserting oneself into the broader conversation, into the broader historical narrative is natural. We all want to be part of history. It’s why we post on Facebook, it’s why we tweet. Hell, it’s why I write for The Good Men Project. We want others to know we exist and that our existence is essential.
This natural inclination, and the social media that now allow it to be an everyday reality for a broad swath of the people living on this planet, does not come without costs. Twitter can be a source of information and misinformation in equal measure. In the moments after Monday’s bombing, and again on Friday during the daylong search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, available information was sketchy. Yet it kept pouring in over Twitter.
Much of it was good. A lot of it, however, was just plain bad: people with no access to hard information tweeting and retweeting rumors. Even the good information didn’t come without cost. On Friday, Boston police had to ask over social media that those following the police scanner stop reporting on their activities—where and what they were searching for in their hunt for the fugitive—in case information could be relayed somehow to the young man on the run.
The immediacy of social media also pushed the mainstream media to jump the gun on a number of stories it erroneously reported last week. On Monday, the New York Post was reporting 12 people had been killed by the bombs. The death toll was actually three.
On Wednesday, a number of outlets reported an arrest had been made in the case and reporters raced to the federal courthouse in Boston only to discover that, no, an arrest had, in fact, not been made, but that a bomb scare had required evacuating the building.
That same day, the Post, in what would be the culmination of a very bad week for the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper, identified a Saudi national as a person of interest in Monday’s bombings and then stuck to the story even as numerous other outlets had dismissed it. According to the Washington Post, the FBI subsequently released the photos of the Tsarnaev brothers to counteract the misinformation.
The mainstream media are in a race to be first, not just with each other, but, increasingly, with all of us. The modus operandi seems to be post first and ask questions later. The danger in that lies not just in the initial misinformation we can be fed, but in never really coming to a full understanding of what a particular story means in a broader context.
To report a story fully takes time, but we don’t reward outlets that surround a story and report on it from all possible angles. We lose interest and move on to the next headline du jour. How long before we stop caring about Monday’s bombing? How long before we stop caring about the motives that drove the Tsarnaev brothers to murder and maim innocent men, women, and children? How long before we stop caring whether this was an isolated event perpetrated by two lonely and confused young men? How long before we stop caring whether Chechen rebels now view the United States as an enemy in their struggle for independence from Russia, with whom President Obama has signaled he wants to ease recent tensions by having his national security adviser, Tom Donilon, hand-deliver a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin?
Lionel Trilling once wrote there is a moral obligation to be intelligent. I believe that to be true. I am sympathetic to how hard it can be to live up to that obligation in today’s world. Information comes at us so quickly and from so many sources it can be difficult to prioritize what’s important. We have jobs and family and friends and houses that need painting and cars that need oil changes and lawns that need mowing. Where does one find time to delve deeply into the stories that impact us?
Besides, we just want life to get back to normal. We don’t want to have to think about the terrible events we experienced last week. We want them to recede until, maybe, we can talk about them at a cookout or a party with the right mix of sobriety and humor.
Do you remember the day they shut down the city to find the guy who blew up the marathon? We had the day off from work. We went down to the bar to watch the news on the big screen. The place was packed.
Death and terror as banter? Is that what last week’s events will eventually be reduced to? I certainly hope not, though I suspect it will be because, again, just as I pointed out in my piece written while under lockdown on Friday, we have the privilege of living in a city and a country that, though shaken by the bombings on Monday and the shootout on Friday morning, remain isolated from the death and terror that are a regular part of the lives of people in so many places in this world.
The corollary to the reduction of last week’s events to cocktail party chatter is the easy answers many of us will give in response to the difficult questions the bombing raises. Pundits will offer platitudes. Some already have—They hate us because of our way of life—which may be true of some terrorists, but whom do we mean exactly when we say “they” and why, exactly, do they hate our way of life? Is it really as simple as the desire to impose sharia on our decadent, secular lifestyles? I doubt it. Nothing is ever that simple.
But it’s easy to think it is when you reduce the news to 140 characters. Now, I’m not saying that we should all shut down our Twitter accounts and get a hard copy of the New York Times delivered to our homes every day. Even if that were what I was arguing, I’m not naive enough to think it would ever happen. The world is evolving and its evolution seems to accelerate almost daily.
What I am saying is that we have an obligation, a moral obligation, even as we commemorate and, eventually, heal, to stay with this story, to chase its long tail beyond this week or even this year, to learn to distinguish between Chechnya and the Czech Republic, to parse the “they” so that we aren’t painting with the same brush, simply because they happen to be “dark-skinned”, terrorists and those who would work for peace, to forthrightly examine our way of life to understand how it intersects with and impacts the lives of others.
It will be easy to fall back into the daily routines that defined our lives before last week’s dramatic events. And that’s okay. Routine is an important part of returning to normalcy, which is an essential part of the healing process. But even as we do, we must resist the lull of daily life. Yes, our jobs and our families and our friends are most important to us. But the victims of bombings in Kabul and Baghdad and Damascus are members of someone’s family and surely someone’s friends. We need to remember that as we remember the victims of the bombings and the shootout that gripped Boston this week.
Michael Dwyer/AP Photo