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