April 22nd, 2013

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After last week, I'm now officially tired of the American Terror Industry

That is to say, the media. (And some of the politicians.)

The most dispiriting thing about the week for me was the number of times I'd flip around the TV or radio or newspapers and see headlines talking about Boston living in a state of fear or nonsense like that. Which of course led to a bunch of inquiries from friends and relatives that all had the same basic question: "Aren't you *scared*?"

Um -- no, not particularly.

I mean, seriously: the closest this came to us personally was the MIT shooting, which was about two miles from here. That's five T stops -- practically an ocean away in practical terms. Somerville wasn't even covered by Friday's lockdown (and Burlington certainly wasn't), which was fortunate, since it allowed me to run the errands I needed for the weekend. I can see myself being scared if I'd been near the scene of the Cambridge shooting (or moreover, the Watertown gun battle) on Friday, and badly shaken if I'd been anywhere near the bombing itself on Monday. But I wasn't.

The only time I had a twinge of *personal* concern was right after the bombing itself, when my reaction was largely the same as 9/11 -- that this was an unbelievably *stupid* thing for someone to have done, and therefore worrying that it was just the precursor to something more clever and horrible. (Specifically, I was slightly worried that they might have been dirty bombs, with radioactive material inside. That would have been a *zillion* times more dangerous.)

But once that was (quickly) passed, the little fear went with it. There was a lot of emotion, of course. There was sadness for the victims of the bombings, and a measure of anger at the jackasses that had done it. There was a somewhat bemused annoyance about Friday's events. (Which I think were a bit of an over-reaction outside Watertown, although I did follow the authorities' reasoning.) There's a fairly intense curiosity about the competing narratives being spun about Dzokhar Tsarnaev. (With the authorities consistently making him out to be a co-equal conspirator, but the interviews turning up surprisingly *consistent* glowing character references; it'll be interesting to see how that resolves.)

But above all, I'm getting a tad cranky about the sense I get from the media that I was *supposed* to be scared -- that there is something wrong with you if you *aren't* scared. Frankly, I can't come up with much reason why I should have been. I mean, these were *not* terrorist masterminds we're talking about here. They managed to hurt some people, but as far as I can tell did so using essentially 19th-century technology.

Look: we live in a city. Cities are *not* safe places. One friend was taken aback by the shooting in Cambridge (which was, to be fair, about half a block from the old dance practice site), saying that things like that don't happen here. I had to point out that that's just not true -- a bunch of folks from dance practice got mugged maybe a block or two away, 15 years ago. That's not happy-making, but it underscores that life is neither safe nor fair, and never has been.

And I suppose that gets to the point. There's a pervasive meme nowadays that life is *supposed* to be safe and fair; I confess, I'm not clear on whether this is new or not, but it sure seems omnipresent today. That's an important tool of the Terror Industry, because it helps build the message that you are *supposed* to be afraid (and angry) when something turns out to be unsafe or unfair.

And the thing is, fear and anger are *lousy* emotions. They're seductive, but they aren't fun and they lead to poor decision-making, both on the individual and societal level. *Caution* is appropriate in circumstances like this -- but caution and fear are by no means the same thing.

By and large, I thought the local authorities and the FBI handled the week pretty well, staying calm and resolved, figuring it out and getting the job done without an excess of panic. But much of the media and national politicians -- not so much. They showed that they were less interested in *fixing* the situation, instead caring more about selling or spinning the story in a way that would sell papers or votes.

So -- sympathies for the folks who *were* scared. (Probably especially the folks in Watertown: hearing what sounds like an action movie near your house has to be unsettling as hell.) Kudos to the people who helped out -- from the runners giving blood to the FBI agents pulling long hours on image-examination. But demerits to the media and politicians who helped do the terrorists' job, trying to convince folks that they *should* be more scared than the situation really warranted...
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Symbolism

I will say that this week had one oddly good outcome, at least to my lights. While the lockdown in Watertown wasn't a bad idea (overzealous in its breadth, I think, but certainly well-intentioned), the biggest concentration of police ever seen in this region didn't manage to catch Dzokhar Tsarnaev. Instead, it was after the lockdown was lifted that an alert citizen noticed something amiss, brought the authorities onto the scene, and things finished up fairly quickly.

If that ain't symbolism, I don't know what is.

We often forget that a healthy community requires appropriate *cooperation* between the citizens and authorities. That means that folks should keep an eye on the authorities, but also respect that they are usually doing their best, and are generally good at their jobs. But it also means that the authorities need to respect their citizens, and recognize that they are not, by and large, dumb, careless or easily panicked.

We're all trying to keep everybody safe. That works best when *everybody* is helping out.

(There are limits to that, of course -- some jobs need to be left to the specialists, and some folks really are kind of thick. But generally, a million eyes can accomplish a lot more than a thousand, even when that thousand are well-trained. Sometimes, informing and trusting the citizenry is a good idea...)