It was nearly a year ago that I first visited Boston. Last week’s events had me rereading my Boston essays, reflecting on my time there and the people I met, like Maya, my airbnb hostess whose South End home I shared, and Joseph Janezic, the assistant DA for the gang crimes unit.
As I listened to the unfolding plot on NPR, I wondered how the bombing affected their week. Was Joe spending extra evenings at community meetings with families in Dorchester, or was he pulled over to assist in the investigation? Did Maya stay closer to home, or did she maintain her public routines in quiet defiance?
I thought about my friend John who lives in Waltham with his wife Enrica and their son William, who speaks only Italian. If such a task were placed in my hands, could I explain terrorism in Italian to a four-year-old? It’s difficult enough to distill tragedy into simple terms in English, though events like these are never easy to explain, no matter the language.
For a case that officials kept promising would be painstakingly slow, the manhunt unraveled quickly, most of it playing out for me on Twitter rather than TV, newspaper or even radio. On Friday afternoon, the Twitterverse read like a scrambled conversation between a police scanner, a philosopher, a news anchor and a comedian:
Breaking news: Boston suspect remains at large; lockdown is lifted.
The brothers did not rob the 7-11, police just confirmed.
Boston police captain says MIT cop was “assassinated in his cruiser.”
“We cannot continue to lock down an entire city” – Boston lifts its ‘shelter in place’ order as manhunt continues.
Boy killed at Boston Marathon was son of injured school librarian.
We men know, among the men we know, which of them would turn into monsters during an apocalypse.
BREAKING: Source says bomb suspect pinned down in Watertown.
Never before perhaps in the history of #america has a #teen had so much #power #manhunt #boston I’m betting he felt v powerless before…
The suspect is alive, surrounded and still moving.
Half truths everywhere.
I’m guessing Dzhokhar isn’t going to be a popular baby name this spring.
BREAKING NEWS: Police have taken the cover off the boat containing the man believed to be the Marathon bombing suspect. He’s not moving.
Two happiest days in a man’s life are the days he buys a boat and the day a suspected terrorist gets blown away in it.
There is a shameful level in a dark place in your soul that is currently thinking, “It doesn’t get cooler than this.”
Latest from Watertown, Mass, where local media report that Marathon bombing suspect may be surrounded.
This is the moment when Cheech and Chong emerge from the boat, coughing.
We are preempting @ThisAmerLife tonight to stay with continuing NPR coverage from the search for the second bombing suspect in Boston.
CNN reporter on the scene says police are yelling at person in boat “come out with your hands up, come out on your own terms.”
Hold on; I have to imagine I can afford a boat first. OK, I’m ready. RT@piersmorgan: Imagine if that’s YOUR boat. #CNN
They got him!
And now I’m closing my eyes and sinking into halcyon reverberated ballads circa ’61 to shield my sanity.
Lots of cheers breaking out, started by the officers.
Breaking news: Boston bombing suspect is in police custody.
Suspect in custody. Officers sweeping the area. Stand by for further info.
Good work, BPD. And hey, someone’s boat just appreciated.
Twitter is more than glitter. #citizenjournalism
Spooky RT@streitfeldcnn: A UMass source confirms that on Weds Tsarnaev went to the campus gym + spent the night in his dorm room.
Map: See where the second Boston Marathon bombing suspect was arrested.
Two police officers involved in Boston manhunt, one dead and another fighting for his life, met in police academy.
We were looking for a man and then we found a man, and heaven knows we’re miserable now. #manhunt
Heaven knows indeed. After that, my Twitter feed lapsed into a cascade of cute otter photos, advertisements for open mic events and NaPoMo poems of the day. The world became a seemingly sane place again—one bomber dead, the second apprehended—after which our fickle attentions searched for milder distraction.
Feeling the lag of the media buzz, a young social media guru attempted to whip followers into an echo frenzy (Someone needs to tell the tv news that lots of people died in West Texas!), but no one responded. Like any drug, there’s such a thing as too much, and the shelf life of the tragedy had run out. It was the weekend, after all, and 9/11 has set the bar for catastrophe in North America—as well as the endurance of American reaction to it.
Early in the week, someone commented on NPR that the Boston Marathon bombing was undoubtedly a home-grown act of terrorism rather than one of Al Quaeda, noting that they draw recruits with the possibility of creating great, not small, chaos:
“Only three people dead and one of them a child? An event of this magnitude would not give a group like Al Quaeda anything to brag about, especially after the grandeur of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.”
Although saddened by news of the bombing, 9/11 has raised my threshold of alarm, without a doubt. I skipped over what seemed like a melodramatic reporter saying the he had never seen anything like the marathon bombing, noting the small puff of smoke on TV and video that showed runners continuing to cross the finish line after it blew. Right or wrong, when compared with the devastation of the twin towers, it was difficult to feel for this what I felt for 9/11.
The speed at which we receive and process information these days encourages us to be unaffected. How can we stop to mourn three people when we are distracted by the gun control debate, immigration reform and 35 dead in Texas? Conversely, how did we effectively miss those 50 injured and 35 dead from the fertilizer plant explosion, nearly a third of whom were first responders struggling to get civilians to safety?
To the young Twitter maven’s point we, as a nation, did skip over that tragedy in favor of the manhunt, which provided a dynamic, ongoing plot. Either way, tragedy shouldn’t be a contest.
I felt a little cheap for circling over the scene in the helicopter of my Twitter feed, casually retweeting and starring posts with the flick my finger. Some posts I shared as a means of spreading information, others as entertainment. The speed of Twitter —of any modern media, really— is unforgivably forward-moving. Moments of sadness and poignancy drift in a wash of crass (and sometimes clever) humor, sensationalized headlines and celebrity shout-outs. When compared with the power of social media to gather and organize protests in Egypt, ours seems candy-coated.
Though they benefit us in many ways, modern media channels demand that we be as removed as the sources of our news itself. Smart phones in hand, we stare, blink and eat another handful of chips until the next calamity unfolds to entertain us.
In response to my own social media addiction (alas, I am no better), I’ve recently become attracted to memoir. The thing about books, and memoir especially, is that they allow the reader to sit with another human being for a spell. The pace at which we read, the nights that we spend propped up with someone’s life in our hands, provide a means of connection that simply cannot be achieved when standing against a raging river of 140-character updates.
We hear the author’s voice in our heads and think of where we were at the same time in our own lives. Memoirs are opportunities to mind-meld with the intimate thoughts of another human being, containing admissions that are typically too complex or revealing to be captured in a live broadcast. They have the power to inspire our oft-misplaced empathy, encouraging us to wonder how we might have survived the author’s circumstances of love, loss or adventure.
For days or weeks at a time, we become fire fighters cut off by burning forests, women who hike remote trails in search of themselves, survivors of genocide and presidents who make impossible decisions for the good of a people, most of whom they will never meet.
With the gentle unfolding of a person’s life, memoir reveals the human in all of us, reader and writer alike. Personal stories remind us that, yes, even in the midst of Syrian rebels and exploding fertilizer plants, three people dead is always worth stopping for and caring about—especially today.