Aside

Our Fearful Response to Boston

Part 2: Sunday I wrote why I thought it was important to break down some of the issues that are absent from the discourse, including why platitudes, condemnations, and consolations should be absent without condemning the author. For more on that, please click over to that post to read the introduction (and the mythologies in the Boston media coverage).

Following the events Thursday night, for nearly 30 hours Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was the most important 19-year-old man in America since Michael Phelps won six gold medals in Athens, with people glued to their TVs then (before the advent of Twitter) and their computers and TVs now. I am typically skeptical of the “copycat” argument when the media discusses school shooters, but I think the attention given to this manhunt hasn’t been seen since OJ. We don’t know what kind of impact this particular iteration of the media-going-overboard is going to have on future acts of violence.

As someone who has an affinity for Boston, which I have chosen to minimize in this post because when we describe those things it only serves to feed in to expectation that we need to establish credibility as a critic, I also had the choice to tune out during the day on Friday. It felt completely unnecessary—well, after tweeting a quip about their literal Caucasian background when I woke up and learned about the overnight events before even getting out of bed—to remain transfixed by the internet/cable news cycle. Being indirectly impacted, trusting that friends in the area were safe because of the already problematic lockdown, meant that I had both the luxury, and in some ways maybe an obligation to wait. It made more sense to wait until the evening to get caught up, avoiding speculation and ignoring the news coverage until then.

Rather than stop everything I was doing during the day to follow the manhunt, I was able to turn on the TV at 7:30 and learn that they had the suspect trapped in a boat. Within 30 minutes I was caught up and the suspect was in custody on his way to the hospital for medical treatment (and aggressive interrogation). So as I caught up, and caught snippets if I did click over to Twitter, something that left me troubled was the reported voluntary compliance with martial law (not “marshall,” something Maggie pointed out after seeing quite a few folks ignorant of the difference in the Twittersphere) in a major metropolitan area. By shutting down the entire metro area, even under the guise of citizens voluntarily throwing open their doors to law enforcement, a strange precedent has been set in regard to the use of force and the expansion of police powers. I’m not an Infowars conspiracy theorist, I just find it troubling. My faith in the government to act responsibly has not yet been shaken, despite the repeated abuses of power that we’ve seen in just the last twelve years. Maybe I’m naïve?

But the good people of Watertown had that same faith: there may have been a belief that their search scope will be limited (will they ignore the pound of cocaine on the table?) or the attitude that it’s their civic duty to ensure that their household is safe and can be checked off the list. But what of those who refuse? Are they forced to comply? Is a search warrant at least attained? Do they get ostracized in their community for exercising their rights and potentially jeopardizing the safety of their neighbors? If they refused, are they viewed as collaborators or supporters of the suspects and their motivations? What about homes that were not occupied, did the police just bust in with out warrants to confirm that the suspect wasn’t holding anyone hostage or hiding in the basement? Do they put your dog down if it reacts negatively to the armed masked men storming in to your home?

Some of these questions appear answered through this video shared by Anonymous:

Now granted it’s across the street and amateur video, but that doesn’t exactly look voluntary—with a SWAT team on your porch and firearms in your face, it probably felt pretty coercive. It appears that you get treated as if there’s something to hide if the police judge you didn’t answer the door quickly enough. There’s an embedded level of fear, even with the voluntary compliance. And it should be mentioned, there’s probably a  great deal of fear permeating the police who are responsible for the manhunt. An officer is already killed and another wounded. The bombings on Monday are fresh in everyone’s mind. And they have no idea if the Tsarnaev is armed with explosives, waiting to take more officers out. Even trained officers with years of experience have to have felt some level of fear, every time they approached a door. After each house is successfully cleared, that only means they’re getting closer to a potential confrontation, no doubt heightening the fear or anxiety.

And this fear felt by the people in Watertown—officers and citizens alike—is important. Whether that was the intent of the suspects or not, their acts function as terrorism, prior to the political label being applied through our legal process, two distinct processes, as noted by Michael Eric Dyson on Melissa Harris Perry Sunday morning. This fear operates in conjunction with support for law enforcement (fear of being associated with “terrorists,” fear of the police response for non-compliance, fear of leaving your own home because you may interact with the suspects or police in a heightened state) and stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric that has permeated the news cycle immediately after the explosions on Monday.

Statements Monday and Tuesday in support of the people of Boston and those affected, such as vowing to run the marathon the following year or to walk the final five miles from BC to Copley, are remarkable in light of the fear that was evident in the photos of empty streets, the police presence, and the visible relief and celebration on Friday night when the suspect was taken in to custody. Clearly, by Friday morning as people learned of Thursday night’s events, there was fear, despite the well-intended statements of community courage not three days before. The defiance of the early week was not about showing no fear, but instead about putting that fear to work: Organizing the community to show the bombers that Boston will not be deterred. In fact, whether they see it that way or not, Boston was deterred, and fear was the reason. And now since Tsarnaev’s arrest, the fear of Friday stands in contrast with the recent news coverage of Boston getting back to “normal,” as if the anxiety of further violence is somehow completely behind them now.

Though we still don’t know the motives for acting, if it did include political terrorism, then it stands to reason that bringing the city to a halt and inducing a week of fear was a bonus they may not have anticipated. However, their behavior on Thursday night in to Friday seems so haphazard and poorly (if at all) planned, that it is reasonable to believe that they did not think that far ahead. Hell, the elder Tsarnaev was dead before the lockdown. And carjacking and ATM withdrawals are really easy ways to draw police attention to yourselves, and anyone who watches a season of 24 could have probably put that together. But it does seem like a reasonable panicky reaction from two people who just saw their faces plastered across all media outlets.

Taking a step back from the heightened fear and anxiety of the past week, it’s also important to think about some of the other impacts that the manhunt had. Just like the poor and working class were largely ignored in the election discourse, it seems that they were again not a consideration, because the perception of public safety is paramount. This 19-year-old was so feared that communities beyond the cordoned off area were also on lockdown, though the police were less of a presence due to their focus on Watertown. Unfortunately, shutting down the metro area disproportionately impacts the poor and working class. Hourly workers counting on the 60 dollars for food or rent may have concerns about safety that are competing with the need for shelter and food. These folks are unfortunately usually in the position of having to weigh needs against each other, with those in the lowest economic class often living in the most dangerous neighborhoods, while those of us more privileged do not need to treat our needs as trade offs.

People like me could take the vacation day or just work from home. I wouldn’t have to think about if its safe to go to work because I need money, or prioritize my safety over earning the money to pay rent (or feed my children, if I was a parent). That lost income isn’t coming back to them in some class action lawsuit against the suspect. The knee-jerk reaction to close Quincy, Brookline, or South Boston to commerce and free movement is extremely problematic. I can understand closing the T to limit the suspects mobility. But by suspending taxi service outside the cordon and closing the streets or businesses, when there was no indication of additional people involved, shutting the city down as a precaution disproportionately impacts people who are already forced to balance their needs on a daily basis.

Here’s something else about the underclass that doesn’t get mentioned: Federal (and possibly other) prisons went into lockdown on Monday after the bombings to prevent violence against those perceived to potentially be involved in the bombing, or ethnically related to stereotypes of terrorists. The people who are subjected to the strictest social control in our country end up even more restricted, because that initial level of control is not sufficient to protect the safety of every person within the prison. The fear that one’s loved ones may have been injured or are in danger can be enough to drive even free people to commit tremendous acts of violence. I can’t imagine the additional pressure when that love is the one constant, sustaining hope in a future after prison or a reality outside the walls of control, and there’s nothing you can do about it or know about their well being. That is no doubt a catalyst that would otherwise lead to violence against others, if not for the lockdown. I’m not sure what it says about our society, if the most restrictive environment, intended to keep free society safe, is not restrictive enough, to keep those within the prison safe, in the wake of tragedy.

And finally, I mentioned the vigilantism in my previous post on Boston, but this is a good follow-up to the suspicions offered by Redditors, many of whom probably haven’t been to the Boston Marathon pre-race. Guess what? They sell black backpacks at the marathon. I bought one in 2008. Lots of people have them! I had it with me in Boston in 2009 because, like others, I returned to give it another shot. It’s hardly an identifying characteristic, and maybe why the bombers chose a black backpack in the first place. But an athletic looking dude with a black backpack is probably about 60% of the people running and milling around the finish line.

So now, about one week later, I’ve also reflected on my general disinterest in the events in Boston, manifested in a resistance to the 24 hour news cycle, while maintaining a general knowledge about the events. It forced me to consider if focusing on my day-to-day existence makes me a “bad” person, who is not patriotic or American enough to comment on the events.

I still have a life and work and responsibilities, so I chose to disengage from the media circus. It’s funny to know that CNN sucks but it doesn’t make me a better person to feed in to it.

Instead, I took care of my home and spent time with family, and put my effort at work towards the difficult challenges related to public safety in my job. From the outside it may look like callous indifference to the events in Boston. But from where I sit, where geographical and financial limits constrain my ability to make any difference, I choose to be active in my spheres of influence, pushing forward with meaningful strategies to help the college students on my campus. Rather than spend too much time, at least during the week, thinking about how I can’t do anything about the Boston situation, I’ve directed my energy in to something I can do to improve the community I live in.

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The Boston Blood Donor Mythology

Since the events in Boston on Monday, I’ve experienced a variety of thoughts and emotions related to it. My aunt saw the news and thought maybe I had been there, calling my mother, who in turn called me to confirm that I didn’t train for and go to run without sharing that with her, because of two past efforts (both of which I was very clear about training for). A close friend and her father, who was a tremendous help to me and my friend when we were marathon rookies in 2008, were near the second bomb site, and were both thankfully safe. I was intensely affected by one particular photograph, a bird’s eye view of the blood stained blast site near the finish, posted to Twitter soon after the bodies were cleared, and at that point decided to ignore the online reporting and the pictures that I frankly didn’t want to see.

As I’ve reflected on both the bombing and the events I woke up to Friday morning, I began to question much of what’s been presented in the media, what we’re ignoring as a result of the on-going news coverage, as well as how information is being shared. When preparing my thoughts on this whole week to offer comment that I felt was not a part of the discourse, I had to seriously consider how to (or even whether to) include the personal information about my connection with or affinity for Boston. The Internet is a medium where access to the discourse is open, but in order for anyone to publicly state opinions and be taken seriously in that discourse, they may need to first offer support for some group impacted—victims and first responders, Bostonians generally, America!, etc.—or condemning the possible perpetrators, even broadly or vaguely, if they remain unknown.

These platitudes and condemnations provide legitimacy to speech before offering ideas or criticisms. Entry in to the discussion is paid for by your sympathy or support, framing your critiques from a place of allegiance, and in opposition to the perpetrators or their motives. By omitting this, an author risks having his or her arguments and ideas ignored by those who prefer to attack the author’s legitimacy or credibility rather than respond to the ideas on the merits.

But I don’t believe that platitudes should be a prerequisite to participation. The only prerequisite to reasoned debate, even with passionate expression, is for participants to open their minds to that which is shared. The background information on why I care about the Boston bombings, or choose to ignore the coverage, or even criticize the subsequent mythologies, may inform the narrative, a stylistic use of the content, but does not necessarily have to inform the issues being raised. The reasons I shared my personal connection with the events is not to convey my support for victims—it’s all quite selfish—but that doesn’t make it any less valuable to the debate. It informs my perspective. And yes, selfless support and care are important, especially if you have friends and family in the Boston area who have been directly impacted. But choosing not to share it online does not mean that you are not supportive and caring. And it doesn’t invalidate the views shared.

Once the debate is open, where participants are exchanging ideas rather than challenging the legitimacy of the voices sharing them, then we can feel comfortable participating. Unfortunately, if you want to get a sense of the reality of the Internet, just read the comments on news articles or YouTube videos. The hateful expression is surely free, but is it productive? The cacophony of voices, each seeking to carve out a little space for itself, ultimately loses meaning. To confront trolls is to get sucked in to a rabbit hole of lost time and energy. Even searching twitter for a trending hashtag shows the sheer volume of those trolling, those taking advantage of the trending topic to spam or market something, and those whose credible or legitimate views and thoughts are lost in the wake. The speed of access can also be anathema to the free exchange of ideas: The refresh button becomes the enemy of sustained meaningful dialogue.

Now, on to the issues:

(Note: While I initially had another litany of concerns related to this week’s events, I delved in to the blood donation mythology at the end and it ended up being much longer than I planned. Other concerns of mine will be published tomorrow.)

Reflecting on some of the events make it clear that the initial reports related to the bombing informing political and prejudicial positions, and are only enhanced by journalistic decision-making.

Right-wing Mythology

If you Google “Saudi man tackled by bystanders” the first page of results includes one news report by a main stream entity, CBS News, and subsequent references by blogs and right leaning websites, serving to reinforce dual mythologies: the goodness of American bystanders as a testament to our exceptionalism and the badness of anyone who appears to fit our stereotype of terrorist. The New Yorker may have the best deconstruction of the targeting, interrogation, and re-victimization of this individual, and you can obviously apply politics and prejudice to that as well, but it is follows a reasonable course, rather than immediately leaping to conspiracy theories.

Left-wing Mythology

Online vigilantes were hard at work helping to identify the hundreds of people near the finish line prior to the explosion, combing through photos available online. With the targeting of “persons of interest” who were no more threatening than a high school track athlete and his coach, interested in the race’s finish, those of us who place themselves on the left got to pat ourselves on the back as more liberal media outlets took the New York Post to task for their reporting. The errors of the online community, and the way it fed journalism, was most blatant in this case, but not limited to it alone. Throughout the week speculation and erroneous statements have been made by Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, all no doubt rushing to scoop the story and break that exclusive (we’re looking at you John King).

Patriotic Mythology

This one is my favorite, and it has yet to be mentioned anywhere I could find, for example in relevant pages on either Snopes or Wikipedia:

NBC Sports Network tweeted at 3:57 PM that they had reports of finishers heading over to Mass General to donate blood after crossing the finish line. It was such a good story that President Obama included it in his speech Monday night, and it was retweeted or favorited over 160,000 times, with countless modifications not included. Maggie raised the question Monday when we were following the coverage, and I was immediate skeptical about the veracity of this information, initially because of the physical and health implications.

But the more I thought and wrote about it, I realized that the biggest concern is probably that there’s not a single additional news source independently confirming the report, with mentions online only citing the NBC Sports tweet. A Google search for interviews with finishers doesn’t even have stories with an interview with a finisher outside Mass General before or after donating. So just before 4 PM, NBC Sports was reporting that finishers were continuing on to Mass General to donate. But 57 minutes earlier, the Blood Donor Center at Massachusetts General posted to their Facebook page:

Our thoughts and prayers are with those injured at the marathon this afternoon.

The blood needs for those who were injured this afternoon are being met right now. However we encourage whole blood donations this week and next week, beginning at 7:30am tomorrow morning. This will help ensure a safe and adequate blood supply in the upcoming weeks.

Of course, a runner just finishing probably wouldn’t know that. So immediately after the explosion, someone who is both mentally and physically exhausted—because let’s not kid ourselves, Boston is a tough marathon and they don’t call it Heartbreak Hill for nothing—would have to have the clarity of mind and purpose to say, “People are hurt, I’m just gonna keep going up to Mass General.” That’s heroic, for sure. But the reality is, that too is speculation. There are certain realities of the finish area at Boston that lead me to believe that this already unsubstantiated story is a feel-good story that has little grounding in truth.

The first explosion disrupted the finish area, such that many runners stopped heading towards the blast site and finish line, as police and first responders cleared the area to prevent any further injury and tend to the wounded. Ten seconds after the first blast, the second one happened a few blocks up the course, thereby trapping probably hundreds of runners who had been pushing it (or if like me, limping) to the finish. These runners were no doubt detoured as well.

On a normal race day without the disruption of bombs at the finish line, things go like this: Once you cross the line in Boston, it’s a short celebration. You’re stopped at the chip removal station, where a volunteer unties your shoes and collects your timing chips. You’re then hurried along to the food and water, given your finisher medal and your aluminum blanket, and if you don’t need medical attention, stumble exhausted to the bus where your bag of gear is waiting for you—where your photo ID is likely waiting for you. Emergency information is written on your participant number, so why? If you finished with or near friends, you may linger a little longer to wait, but most probably want to get to their families or just collapse in Boston Common. The post-finish area is Runners Only and secured by barricade fencing; you have to navigate it like a maze just to get out. Add in the crowd of other runners, especially around the baggage buses and family meeting area, and even a Boston Marathon veteran probably couldn’t get through the three blocks and get their bag (one of hundreds to be sorted through on a bus) in less than 10 minutes.

After the explosion, this all goes to hell because from the chip and food/water areas, you can see the finish line and there are people running everywhere, becoming a chaotic scene of finishers, spectators, volunteers, and first responders. And even assuming there was a finisher or two who stated they were heading up to MGH after the explosion, they’d have to jog the 1.1 miles from the runners exit on St. James over to the Blood Donor Center. I’m not convinced that someone is doing all that in 10 minutes, arriving and checking in before they stop taking donations.

So assume there are a few runners, who are local enough to know how to get to MGH, get through the finish area very quickly, then also decide, “This is how I can help.” Maybe I’m a coward, but the last thing I would consider doing after a marathon, for any reason, is withdrawing a substantial amount of blood. We also have to question if a phlebotomist or medical professional would even accept a donation from a marathon finisher. A marathon is strenuous physical activity. One’s iron content could be greatly diminished by the exertion and it’s certain that on a sunny, 50-degree day, the balance of body fluids are not going to be suitable to donation. The elite runners have a strong electrolyte and fluid management plan for their races. I guaranteed that the 4 hour group is not quite so meticulous, so as to be healthy enough to donate. It is far-fetched that anyone would be physically capable of actually successfully giving, even if they got up to MGH prior to the Blood Donor Center closing for the day.

Yet without even the slightest interrogation, this is the perfect kind of myth we love in the wake of these tragedies. An unknown number of unnamed individuals, in a frightening and chaotic scene, volunteered themselves to jog, after running 26.2 miles, to donate blood, possibly against the better judgment of medicine and common sense. The narrative that unfolded, contrary to the reality of geography and time, is that the people involved, if there were donors or intended donors among the finishers near the time of the explosion, is not that they themselves are heroes. The idea of finishers going to donate after running is what we find to be heroic. We like to believe that there are people who selflessly pushed their bodies even just a little bit harder, as just another example of how we’re a strong and resilient country, made up of strong and resilient people.

We are a strong and resilient nation, and Americans tend to be strong and resilient when facing difficult situations. I just don’t think we need unsubstantiated media reports, exaggerations, or outright lies to help us believe it in the wake of tragic events. The facts should speak for themselves.

Click over to Part 2 for my other thoughts on the events in Boston