We are now five days removed from the end of five days of horror in Boston. An event such as what happened on April 15 at the Boston Marathon and continued for the next four days (and in various ways still continues) affects someone like me in a number of different ways. You react as a person, horrified at the event and worried about people in the area. You react as an American who ponders what happened and why. And, in my case, you also respond as a historian (and a teacher), processing events and accounts (both correct and incorrect) as you look to understand what’s happening in a broader context, including a historical one.
It was gripping and fascinating to follow the course of events during the manhunt for the accused perpetrators on Thursday and Friday. What happened (as well as what happened the entire week) reminded me of that time-honored Civil War newspaper headline, seen to the left. I found the most useful sources of information to be local news coverage and Twitter. Indeed, I could ask my own questions about events on Twitter and gain useful information in response. Some people on Twitter proved to be a little careless and thoughtless, of course, relaying information captured from police scanners: I was reminded of how William T. Sherman tried a reporter for relaying information in his newspaper reports that could be of good use to the enemy (both sides used the press of the opposing side to good effect most of the time). One had to sort through the incoming information, make sure not to rush to any conclusions, and discern the reliability and prudence of various Twitter contributors. I found the result more satisfying and informative than what was coming across on national television feeds.
Yet I also came across other expressions on Twitter and elsewhere which caused me to pause and think. Look, for example, as some of these exchanges between folks on Friday, April 19:
Our reaction to terrorism shouldnt be predicated on the demography of the terrorists. Sad that bigotry apparently obscures this simple truth
when you ignore demography, ethnicity, etc. you’re putting blinders on to the motives behind the actions, Jackhole.
Well, that certainly was impressive. To someone who said that our reaction to terrorist acts should not depend on the geographical origin of the terrorists (terrorism is terrorism, period), someone responds by discussing the need to understand the motives of the terrorists, which strikes me as an entirely different matter. Perhaps the colorful coda suggests the respondent’s state of mind. A more patient and discerning reading of the initial post seems in order.
But that wasn’t enough for our respondent, who trained his sights on another person who said:
The fact that we know more about religious/national background of Boston suspects doesn’t mean motive has to do with those things.
afraid of admitting that Islamism could be a factor? It doesn’t make you “enlightened” to ignore it. It makes you naive.
There is not necessarily a straight connection between issues of identity and explanations of motivation (“has to do”), a point now made in various recent reports about the two suspects, especially the surviving one. But knowing about those things may help us understand what’s going on, so long as we don’t jump to conclusions. However, the response betrays some sloppy logic born of careless reading. The person whose comment elicited such an angry response didn’t say that religious ideology had nothing to do with the case under discussion, but that it wasn’t necessarily so, especially when information was far from complete. Islamism (which, properly used, is different than Islam) might well be an issue in this particular case, but we don’t know yet, although more recent reports suggest that a picture of the older suspect’s motives is slowly emerging. But the initial commenter said nothing about “ignoring” anything: the comment simply cautioned against rushing to the sort of conclusion the respondent seemed somewhat more eager to reach (and the respondent had no problem rushing to conclusions about the commentator). Given what people have said about the quality of some mainstream reporting during last week in rushing to conclusions and passing along reports that turned out to be false, it might be a good idea if everyone exercised a little restraint and care.
The following set of exchanges, however, involving the same respondent, took the cake.
This isn’t about Chechnya. This isn’t about Islam. This is about two violent, narcissistic boys who wanted to blow some shit up.
But if this was done by a Tea Party militia dude, it’d be a different story, right? It’s just a coincidence that they’re muslim.
Also, how do these “narcissistic boys” obtain grenades and explosive vests? Folks need to take off the blinders to Islamism.
Where to begin? Well, in this case the initial commenter is making some assumptions that aren’t based on any information (as in, “How do you know?”). At the time the comments were made, no one had a grasp of what motivated the two suspects (that explanation is only now being developed). That said, the respondent blurs his own earlier use of the word “Islamism” by first mentioning “muslim,” leading one to wonder whether the respondent knows the difference between Islam and Islamism. Nor have the respondent’s implied notions about the source of the suspects’ armament been borne out by the investigation to date. Indeed, the supply chain appears to look a bit different than that implied by the respondent’s comments. That said, ideological motivations are surfacing as motivations for the attack, and it is not clear yet whether the suspects acted on their own, although the surviving suspect says so. The fact is that we simply don’t know enough right now to make that sort of determination, and we certainly didn’t know enough last week, a consideration not evident in this final exchange. As for “taking off one’s blinders,” yes, that’s a good idea.
It’s worthwhile to note that there have been discussions about whether the bombings constitute an act of terrorism, as this discussion suggests (h/t to Marcie Braverman). Much depends on the meanings we attach to the words we use.
Just because information flows so quickly nowadays does not mean that we should jump to conclusions that may reflect the triumph of rashness over reason. Then again, some people could have located Chechyna with the same search engine they use to discover the latest escapades of Justin Bieber (no, folks, Chechnya isn’t the Czech Republic … that’s a big fail in basic geography).
We might also try to understand how our own frame of reference shapes our own initial responses (and how we so often betray that). Take our respondent, who declared earlier on April 19, prior to these exchanges:
I wonder how many Bostonians who were ambivalent about gun ownership now wish they had something in the event the bomber tried to bust in
The respondent was not the only person to say this that day, although in the other case, at least the individual had the good sense to apologize. If questionable comments from Arkansas state legislators seem to ring a bell with you, well, there’s a reason for that. As for the responsible use of a weapon in accordance with the law, I’m all in favor of that, but to each their own.
Our assumptions tell us a great deal about ourselves, and we’d learn a lot if we’d only think a little about them.