Forward Thinking: Lessons From Boston About How To Respond In The Wake Of Public Violence

Social media has rapidly transformed all of us into participants in the media, rather than merely its passive consumers. And even before social media, gossip and other cultural mechanisms served as means for each of us to spread rumors or quell them, spread panic or promote reason, in the wake of horrifying events. We need to think conscientiously and develop norms for how we respond in times of terrorization. So, for the latest prompt in Libby Anne’s and my “Forward Thinking” series, in which we solicit discussions about what our contemporary values should be, I asked bloggers to write about what specific responsibilities we had in the wake of traumatic public violence.

Here were some things written in response to the prompt and just a few of the many other pieces that I saw as relevant to it:

Nikhil Krishnaswamy is a long time Camels With Hammers reader who was motivated to write a rare blog post because he lives just a town over from where the manhunt for the suspect was concentrated:

I’ve never been this close to terrorism before. I was not exactly close to the Boston Marathon bombings, being at work 14 miles away when I heard about them, but this is closer than I was to 9/11 (I was a freshman in a New Mexico high school), and far closer than I am to any of the innumerable acts of terrorism, both state-sponsored or otherwise, around the globe.

So seeing bombs go off in an area I walk through pretty much every time I go into the city really brings it home. I’ll admit the concept never really seemed real to me. If that sounds like a mark of my privilege brought on by the good fortune to be a relatively well-off, well-educated man in a first-world country, that’s because it is. If this is what gets me thinking about our ethical responsibilities in the wake of tragedy, so be it.

His thoughts:

We’ve seen a flood of emotion surrounding these events. The whole city pulled together. Those who gave prayers, money, and blood should be praised for giving money and blood.

It’s a very emotional and chaotic situation—a bombing and a shootout. But watching the way it’s playing out is actually quite noteworthy. For all the talk of prayer and God-help-us, what really made this whole situation not dissolve into a complete chaotic clusterfuck has been the actions of human beings. In the first responders and the investigators, we’ve seen a measured, reasoned, deliberate response of people doing their jobs like the poster says: keeping calm and carrying on. Even in the heat of a manhunt for an apparently very slippery suspect, the police move very, very carefully, covering all angles, combing locations thoroughly. The news coverage is all over the place (one of them’s married, one of them’s a fundamentalist Muslim, etc.), but the local media here has maybe learned from the mistakes of CNN. Mostly what they’re reporting is police movements and the progress of the manhunt. When they do speculate about the suspect, they have been trying very hard to not state hearsay as if it were fact, making sure that allegations remain alleged.

Which is perhaps less than can be said for some people.

There are two ways we tend to lose our heads in the wake of tragedy. One comes on very quickly in tight cycles of fear and paranoia.

In the immediate wake of the bombing, conservative radio host and ball of unbaked cookie dough Alex Jones was out there waving the false flag flag, insisting that the bombings were perpetrated by the government in order to blame the Tea Party and give the TSA more range to grope people. His evidence? The attack happened on Patriot’s Day, a special day in the militia movement. But you know what? I can wildly speculate, too. It was also Tax Day, so clearly the bombing was the work of anti-tax extremists! Oh, wait, the suspects they chased around the mall where I go shopping for DVDs are a couple of college-age Chechens. Both narratives: blown out of the water.

Read more.

Avicenna, a British Indian blogger, describes how he got taken in by the hypothesis that Sunil Tiparthi, a student missing from Brown University who was wrongly suspected by the internet of being a Boston marathon bomber, and seeks to set an example by apologizing and taking responsibility:

I am not in a good mood. Today is not a good day for a lot of Indians and a lot of people are “fucking pissed off”. This is a rant.

I was awake this morning when Reddit began it’s coverage of the MIT shoot out. I had a day off so decided to chill out on Ed Brayton’s regular Google+ Hangouts when people on it linked me to Reddit’s coverage of the MIT shoot out.

Then something weird happened. People indicated that these were the suspects from the Boston Marathon and reading the updates became car crash reading.

And then I noticed something “weird”. They named the suspects. Sunil Triparthi’s name came up. And it didn’t make sense to me. Saffron terror groups share the USA’s general “Islamophobia”. They LIKE Israeli Hawk Parties. They don’t like muslims. Why would they attack the USA.

So it got me thinking maybe he is a convert. So I did some research. The BBC’s website had the images of the suspects but no names. A variety of news sources began reporting Sunil Triparthi’s name.

But the source may genuinely be Reddit since the thread there was based on the police feed. Sunil’s name was mentioned on the original. I didn’t think to take a screenshot at the time (and even if I did I have no idea how to post screenshots on Linux…).

Sunil’s name was run by a variety of conservative news sources. Everyone began to run with that name and began postulating things about the still missing Sunil. No retractions. Just deletions so far. Hell, Infowars is still crowing about Sunil being the suspect.

Sunil Tripathi is still missing and his family want him to come home. He did not bomb the Boston Marathon.

Reddit and everyone else who ran with the theory that he did effectively did to Tripathi what the Post did to Salah Eddin Barhoum. America has done this before with Richard Jewell.

Only they did it while Tripathi’s family wonders if he’s even still alive. The truth was revealed before the false accusation spread too far, but the damage was done. At some point last night, after the page on Facebook was filled with abuse and accusations. The Facebook group “Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi” was deleted by his family but has been recreated after he was cleared because the abuse was intolerable.

And I will apologise for myself. I myself believed he had something to do with this and jumped to the conclusions being bandied around by people. I jumped to conclusions and while I didn’t respond with the hate and harassment Sunil got, I responded with resignation.

Tauriq Moosa has an excellent round up of this and all the other ways that social media and the mainstream media damagingly pointed the fingers at the wrong people with its ill-informed speculations and careless amateur rushes to judgment, endangering them and aggrieving those who love them, and otherwise risked and worked counter to the estimably careful official police investigation. Then he makes these observations about how we should look at our responsibilities to prevent such counter-productive efforts by overeager citizens:

Desperation complicates proper methodology. The speed with which, for example, Twitter was keeping alive misinformation, spreading further falsities, and allowing otherwise smart people to get caught up in unjustified assumptions speaks to our confusion – but also to failure. As Farhad Manjoo said: “Caught up in the excitement of breaking news, I was one of many journalists who retweeted news that the Brown student was one of the suspects—a fact which, in the morning, I feel absolutely terrible about.”

Today we click Share, Retweet, Like, and other buttons to show our support, to convey our outrage, our concern. We’re paralysed behind monitors, looking down on cellphone screens, as somewhere in the world people die, suffer, live in chaos. We don’t want to appear cold-hearted, so we share; we don’t want to be uninformed so we Retweet links or evidence from people we think reliable – or perhaps that are just first.

But this seems to be doing more damage: we might sate our appearance of caring, but we undermine our actual goal of helping others.

As the blogger Drag0nista points out:

“In a way, it’s pointless lecturing people on social media to be more responsible with information. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. While it’s admirable to think that ‘breaking news is broken’ and that we should just step away from the tweetstream, many of us will continue to relish and share the excitement that comes from monitoring news events in real time.”

That excitement should, of course, be second – or third or fourth – place behind obtaining facts. It’s addictive: I certainly struggle to not Retweet or post links to further details on emerging cases.

But doing nothing is an option more of us should consider. What finally clinched this was when it became apparent that people’s incessant desire to post information on the Net was not only complicating police investigations, but their actions on the ground: their positions, numbers, movement and other tactical information was being published for the entire world to see.

It’s unlikely these people were trying to put the police in danger, of course: they were simply reacting to information. But they were reacting in the wrong way.

We’ve never had a time where we could each disseminate information immediately to hundreds or thousands of people instantaneously before: but now, we are all public newspapers, we’re all TV stations. Such places have a responsibility – which they either fail or live up to. When they fail, we call them out on it.

How would we feel if a news-station gave out information revealing the positions of police officers trying to catch a suspect? Presumably, we’d think it irresponsible. If so, we should recognise that each of us has this same responsibility: Even if we don’t have a million followers on Twitter, we don’t k now which of our tweets will be seen, which of our statements will be solidified as fact that sees the hunting of innocent teenagers.

I’m not asking for us to be silent, I’m asking us to be more responsible. How to act during a horrible situation might sound idealistic, but considering the ramifications here of innocent people being attacked, investigated and so on, all because a lot of us could not simply be silent, contemplative, or fact-check I think it is necessary.

Ozy Frantz has several reasons for opposing the intensive media coverage these acts of violence receive, pointing out that the average person cannot do much to help and can do a lot to hurt. Blood banks do not need all the blood donated in the immediate wake of the violence. Not only does their blood go to waste but the donor now cannot donate for a while. And of course the fear stirred up incites potential discrimination against feared groups, seen as guilty by association (or assumed association). Ozy also notes that overcoverage of public violence corrupts policy thinking:

Because of the availability heuristic, it’s easier for people to remember shootings and terrorist attacks than less-covered things like heart attacks or infectious diseases. That means we think that shootings and terrorist attacks lead to more deaths than they really do. We spend billions of dollars on law enforcement and security theater to prevent shootings and terrorist attacks, instead of relieving poverty or scientific research or literally anything else. (The TSA alone costs eight billion dollars a year, or approximately ten thousand grants to study snail sex.) We start calling for gun control or more mental health treatment or national registries of mentally ill people or an end to immigration or a war in Afghanistan, not because these policies are supported by evidence and in our best interests, but because they might have prevented this one flukey thing that we think is more common than it is because people keep covering it.

Ozy concludes:

Let me be clear: I am not policing your response to public violence. I was scared too. It is perfectly natural to be scared when people are covering some shocking act of public violence 24/7; that’s just how brains work. It’s as if the news decided to have 24/7 coverage every time an orphaned puppy got brain cancer. It is perfectly normal to be sad when orphaned puppies have brain cancer; it is also perfectly fair to be upset that the news is making a bunch of people sad for no reason.

I know why people cover this kind of violence. It’s because it’s interesting, it makes people feel things, and it drives clicks. But I look forward for the day when the media says, “giving this attack attention is exactly what the attacker wanted” and turns away.

To which David A. Osario directly retorts:

Actually, that’s not how media works.

First of all, people have different fear thresholds and triggers, so it is impossible to manufacture a message in order to “make people afraid“, or to make every person in the world feel any other specific emotion. And why would anyone else be accountable for your own feelings? That’s a strange point of view on responsability to hold – especially, since no one is forcing you to watch the news. In the Internet age, I find it odd you don’t click on the Sports tab, if that’s your kind of news.

Why would you torture yourself and go through that kind of discomfort? Unless you’re into sadomasochism or the likes, and that’s (way to twisted for my taste but) fine… let’s not blame the media for this!

Second of all, media shows what the public asks for. And it’s understandable people want to know as much as possible of a news story this big. If you’re in the news business (and trust me, you want it to keep them businesses instead of all of them being State-owned media) and you don’t cover the breaking news, your competition will, and they will get most of their audience and the clicks and if you keep on refusing to show ‘scary’ news, you’ll be out of business before you even notice it.

I guess that’s my two cents about ethical responsabilities when confronted with shocking public violence: let’s not blame the media for what the audiences are asking for, and please, let’s not hold them accountable for our feelings.

Libby Anne thinks it important to protect the innocence of her pre-schooler and not expose her to information about the bombings:

Another thing that’s been on my mind in all of this is Sally. I haven’t talked with her about any of this because she doesn’t appear to know it’s going on—without a TV, she’s not seeing coverage—but I know that at some point that will change, because one of her classmates will say something, or her teacher, or perhaps she’ll start paying more attention when we have NPR on. So I’ve been avoiding having these discussions with her, because I like that the scariest things currently in her world are daleks and weeping angels, not real people with guns or bombs, but I’ve also been thinking about how to approach topics like this when she’s too old to avoid doing so, because that time will come.

James Croft lives in Boston and is originally from the UK. He is outraged and alienated that the civic interfaith ceremony involving the President of the United States excluded Humanist representation:

I am not one of those atheists who is allergic to religion. In fact I often find religious ceremonies moving and powerful. Often, I am happy to attend. But this is a publicly-sanctioned, widely-reported service advertised by the State as “an opportunity for the community to come together in the wake of the tragic events at the Boston Marathon”. It is being attended by the Governor and the President himself. It is the symbolic response to the attacks: the seal of the state adorns the program, and the service is called “Healing Our City”. Yet it completely excludes many Bostonians: those who are not religious, and those whose religions are not represented in the program. This is not a service I would choose to attend even given my love of ritual and ceremony, and my deep need to process what has just happened: I wouldn’t feel safe there. I wouldn’t feel respected. Nothing on that program speaks to me, makes me feel I’m wanted as part of this society. Am I not a resident of this city? Am I to be denied healing?

I entirely support the right (indeed the responsibility) of congregational leaders to respond to the needs of their community by speaking from within their religious tradition, and I am not opposed to private ceremonies of any sort which include few or even one religious perspective. Also, I understand it is common for politicians to rush to attend religious services after atrocities like this, and that often to refuse to do so would be political suicide. But this event, which was organized by the Massachusetts Governor’s Office itself (I spoke with the Massachusetts Council of Churches and the Governor’s Office today and received confirmation that the Governor’s Office was responsible for the final selection of participants), has become the public response to the attacks, and therefore must be representative of all the public – including people like me and members of my Humanist community. The program presented above is not: it is divisive, it is exclusionary, it is hurtful. It is particularly hurtful because secular organizations in Boston explicitly requested representation in this service: Zachary Bos of the Secular Coalition for Massachusetts went in person to meet with representatives of the Governor’s Office to request participation in a public “interfaith” response to terrorism yesterday, and was promised a response by the end of the day, which he did not receive. It is heartbreaking because people involved with my own Humanist community have been gravely affected by the bombings.

JT Eberhard indelicately disagrees with him that the faithless should care to be invited to an interfiath service:

You’ve given them the chance to involve atheists and they haven’t. I know the Harvard Humanists won’t quit begging for entry into the faith club, but at this point why should other atheists follow suit? Set up a vigil just to fucking mourn, not to exclude others, and welcome anybody who wants to come. Yeah, you won’t have the President, but you’ll at least have some integrity. Here we have a group that has clearly discriminated against us for the crime of believing human beings, not magical beings who rise from the dead and who watched the bombers conceive and execute their scheme while not even calling the police, are the only source of relief and justice on this planet (funny how the medics, charity workers, and investigators who are allacting like this is the case aren’t similarly shunned). What does it say about you that you’re so eager to join the ranks of people who clearly think less of you?

You’ve established you’re willing to work with people of faith. Good on ya. I support that. But if the interfaith lot has decided, again, that turning their nose up at atheists and the needs of the atheist community is more important than working together, fuck ‘em. They clearly have different priorities than we.

And if they want to splash “faith” over everything we do even when they do deign to allow us a place at the table, ditto. Compassion for the grieving and charity belong to humanity, and shouldn’t be leeched to make the faithful feel more special than any other person.

James Croft has a follow up post on why atheists should want to be part of interfaith events. For more from “Forward Thinking” bloggers on how we can best grieve together when we don’t all share the same beliefs, see our installment on collective mourning.

Speaking of faith, Arthur Goldwag argues that our rushes to blame victims and demonize perpetrators are crude attempts at theodicy:

More interesting to me, as someone who has struggled to understand the underlying psychology of conspiracy theory, are the ways that civilians rush to make sense of the inexplicable. A couple of months ago, a woman in my neighborhood was killed as she walked out of a bakery where she’d just bought some cookies. The driver of an SUV had passed out and driven up on the sidewalk, possibly because he’d gone into insulin shock. The comments on the neighborhood blog were rife with speculation and anger: the police don’t investigate pedestrian fatalities (true); the drivers of the vehicles that kill them are almost never prosecuted (true); diabetics should be aware of their condition before they get behind the wheel (true); someone should be punished (maybe). No one blamed the victim that time, but when another woman was killed by a left-turning truck as she rode her bicycle through a green light, many posters took the time to note–in a public forum that the victim’s family members were likely to read–that they have frequently biked that route themselves and are always careful at that exact corner, because drivers are always turning without looking.

All of it is true, none of it is crazy or hateful–but to me it’s revealing that so many people feel the need to broadcast those thoughts out loud. What they are saying, in effect, is that the world is still rational and meaningful, even if terrible things happen from time to time. There is always an explanation; there are never victims, only martyrs or fools, and someone is always to blame. It’s a spontaneous act of theodicy, as if they all want to let God off the hook–and/or to reassure themselves that they are too smart to ever be a victim themselves.

In the spirit of avoiding this error, Shira Coffee criticizes those rushing to blame Islam, talking about how even Islamic extremists are usually motivated by the more fundamental human motive of vendetta, to which we are all susceptible. Then explains her practices for mentally getting her thoughts right in response to events like these:

When I am confronted with such things, I focus first on the victims. I remind myself that I am subject to death, subject to injury, subject to illness, subject to the loss of those I love, etc. Nothing separates me from the sufferings of the victims except circumstance.

When I come to understand this — and practice does, in fact, wear down the barriers to recognizing the facts — then I have every motivation to do what I can to help. Can I help this victim? Can I help other people in similar circumstances? If there is something to be done, that it is possible for me to do, I go ahead and do it. If not, I resolve not to forget. (After all, it might become possible to do something later.)

The second step in my practice is equally important. If there is a perpetrator, I think carefully about them. I remind myself that I am not a fully-enlightened Buddha, and that, therefore, I am subject to delusion, to hatred, to greed. What separates me from the perpetrator is… circumstance. I am fortunate that I have not lived that person’s life. I am motivated to practice toward enlightenment (when I can truly be free of bad inclinations.)

Also, I remember that there is no fixed self, and no immutable character. Yes, there are people genetecially lacking some of the important elements of morality, as psychopaths are lacking empathy. But for the most part, people’s character and moral choices are products of both individual tendencies and cultural norms. (If you doubt that a rotten culture can destroy the morals of ordinary people, I direct you to the scientific work of Philip Zimbardo.) For that reason, I have to do what I can to contribute to a healthy, humane culture.

After summarizing the ways that harmful responses to the tragedy hurt people, Rachel Marcy talks about constructive things we cando:

The best thing we can do in the aftermath of a crisis is help the people affected, if possible. The response in Boston was outstanding. I have great respect for the emergency and medical personnel, as well as for bystanders who helped the injured. The work they do is truly remarkable. Everyone brought to the city’s trauma centers survived, even though many suffered horrific injuries. Local residents came out of their houses to offer water and snacks to fatigued and shaken runners, and a massive spreadsheet was organized so locals could offer a place to stay, a meal, or a drive to somewhere else for stranded runners and spectators.

Those of us more removed from the attack (or natural disaster) should only become involved if the help we can offer would actually be helpful. Researching organizations that will genuinely use monetary donations to help victims is the most useful thing in most cases. I’m sure messages of support can be heartwarming, but peddling conspiracy theories and bigotry, or even just talking about your emotions at the expense of the experiences of the actual victims, definitely isn’t helpful. Our reaction should take a victim-centered approach. They are the priority.

Also responding to the hastiness of responses and all the problems that came with them, Marta Layton recommended simply to learn how to wait:

So my best advice in the wake of another national tragedy? Wait. Turn off the TV and radio and internet as much as you can. Hug your kids, or go for a walk, or take a copy of The Hunger Games (admittedly not very cheery, but my personal obsession du jour) to the roof of your apartment and soak up some sun while you watch the sun set. Do whatever it takes to lick your wounds and deal with your psychological trauma. It’s real, and it won’t go away just because you understand the why of what’s happened. Just don’t look for meaning and closing on MSNBC, Fox, or CNN. Especially not in those first few hours.

For the next installment of “Forward Thinking”, send Libby Anne (at lovejoyfeminism @ gmail dot com) Your Thoughts on the purpose of public education.

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