Bombs in Boston, amnesia in America

| April 22, 2013
Watertown, Mass. on Friday. (Photo: Talk Radio News Service / flickr)

I spent Friday evening flipping between TV news networks and social media; a voyeur to the dramatic last chapter of the "manhunt" for the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings.

That's right, I spent Friday night watching the news. I'm a nerd.

 Boston was locked down; its streets ghost town empty, its residents behind bolted doors, obeying a "shelter in place" order.

The birthplace of the American Revolution was under martial law. And aside from a few bloggers, almost nobody was talking about it.

The suspect was cornered in a quiet Watertown neighbourhood, hiding in a boat. Surrounded.

Stuttering helicopter floodlights played across suburban backyards. Over looping tape of flashing police cars, breathless network correspondents narrated the smallest detail. Every word was enunciated in "we're all in this together, we're all Boston Strong" italics.

There's nothing wrong in identifying with a scared community. But the mainstream news media and the police were fueling the fear. These are the exact times when we need a clear voice, not just cheerleading for the authorities. Watchdogs, not lapdogs are called for.

Then: "We got him!" crashes across the Twitterverse, interrupts regular programming. Tired but jubilant reporters smiling, getting a pat on the back, chattering excitedly; interrupting each other.

Post game wrap up

 The "him" that “we got” is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and was covered in blood with a bullet wound in his leg and neck. "Him" was not read his Miranda rights. The federal government invoked a "public safety exception," as articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bostonians poured out into the streets, cheering as police vehicles sped past, and chanting "USA! USA!"

I felt uneasy at the wildly inaccurate media reports, the racist presumptions, the giant, unanswered questions about civil liberties, but mostly I felt a déjà-vu – or more of a presque-vu, a feeling that in the coming days and weeks I will witness something that I’ve seen before; backlash and vengeance.

News anchors at their news desks started wrapping up, trying to summarize five days of painfully detailed but frequently inaccurate coverage. Arrests and discovered bombs that didn't go off were widely reported. And wrong.

Commentators confused the Czech Republic with the Chechen Republic, and referred to the Russian Caucasus as a "caucus." But military terms peppered the reportage and were always used correctly. One Tweeter asked, "what the hell is a 'flashbang' anyway?"

Early in the drama, various suspects were picked out of footage of the bombings. They were identified because they did not "act normally" during the explosions. Apparently, some did not run around, freaking out, like everybody else. Or they took off too fast. I thought about how I would act in such a situation. Would I display the requisite levels of freak out?

During "manhunts," there is a tendency to shoot first, and ask questions later. Just ask the families of innocent bystanders shot by LAPD cops during its crazed search for Christopher Dorner in February.

This week, video was beamed around the world of a Bostonian surrendering, naked, to cops with guns drawn. In a news cycle that featured images of victims with limbs blown off and bone exposed, CNN pixilated out his junk, lest our delicate sensibilities be offended.

Late one night, I heard an excited suburban Boston resident tell the BBC World Service that she and her husband had looked out their window and seen a man in a blue hoodie in their parking lot. So they immediately called the police. I wondered what would become of blue-hoodie man. But the media did not. The lockdown had the effect of criminalizing (and imperiling) anyone still outside. But what if you're homeless? Or just happen not to be near home?

Spectacle and profiling

When bombs go off, people who are traditionally scapegoated, marginalized or targeted, get nervous.

My comrade and friend Sharmeen Khan put it this way: "Every time I hear of a bombing, I always think to myself, 'Please don't let it be a Muslim. Please don't let it be a Muslim. Please be some white, Christian dude and spare me from all the Muslim bashing in the media.'" She is not alone.

Patriotism swelled at a Wednesday night hockey game, Bruins fans "honoured bombing victims" with a rousing rendition of the "The Star-Spangled Banner". The other side of that coin is the random assaults on Muslims and people of colour that inevitably follow such events.

Immediately after the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building, pundits howled about Islamic extremism. When the very white Tim McVeigh was caught, the tone lightened.

When the background of the Boston suspects was identified, the Onion satirically worried that the "majority of Americans [are] not informed enough to stereotype Chechens."

Same as it ever was

In the days after 911, before that particular brand name had even been affixed to the event, reactions were the same. Of course, it is a human reflex to identify with tragedy and the traumatized, and our society is so bereft of empathy and solidarity, that it can be intoxicating when it does appear.

But what comes after is where the trouble starts: groupthink, revenge, a general abandonment of critical faculties (looking at you Blitzer) and some very bad public policy.

Over a decade after the World Trade Centre towers came down, the U.S. has bankrupted itself financially and morally with two wars. Nearly 800 individuals have been or are still being held in a legal no-man's land at Guantanamo.

On September 12, 2001, we all woke up to a changed world -- not as much by terrorism, as by the response to it. "America's New War," I wrote at the time "is also a war of ideas, in which voices against war and racism are massively outgunned and this new consensus of revenge [must be] broken open to reveal the old power relations that reside within." We are still recovering from that terrible revenge hangover.

But based on the media's near total lack of critical coverage at such times and the authoritarian tendencies of authorities, I fear what the coming weeks will bring in America.

Already the gun control debate has been totally eclipsed on Capitol Hill. After the lockdown of Boston and the departure from Miranda rights, I wonder what other ways this event will reshape the public agenda.

Backlash rolls downhill.

And north.

 

Garth Mullins is a writer, long time social justice activist and three-chord propagandist living in East Vancouver. You can follow him @garthmullins on Twitter.

Photo: Talk Radio News Service / flickr

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