Reading, Speaking, Writing, and Thinking Carefully

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.

important if true headlineIt 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.

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24 thoughts on “Reading, Speaking, Writing, and Thinking Carefully

  1. I totally agree with you. Critical thinking, reading, writing, and speaking is important.

    For example David Duke could shoot his black neighbor dead because his black neighbor ran over Duke’s dog. Such an event wouldn’t at all have been about David Duke’s white supremacist ideology. Regardless, David Duke would definitely be called a white supremacist and no doubt people would immediately suspect the killing of his black neighbor to do with his white supremacist ideology.

    The problem is that our media is comfortable throwing around a word like white supremacist and not some other words. There is no way in the world they would not call David Duke a white supremacist. White supremacist was widely used last week with regards to the murdered DA case in Texas (turned out to be false) and it was even bandied about after the bombing in Boston (also false). Our media struggles, however, to use a word like Islamist. Just a couple of weeks ago the Associated Press, under pressure from CAIR, decided to stop using the “misleading” term Islamist. This is just unfathomly hypocritical and stupid.

    These douchebags were Islamists, violent Islamists. Sad, but so very true.

  2. The problem I have is that for the most part, media are technically incompetent. Not only do they not know, but they are unable to determine who does know. I suppose this was a problem in civil war reporting as well, but without the immediacy we have today it probably didn’t have as much impact. That’s why on most subjects I have to search out online sources if I really want to find out what is happening. While the online sources (particularly community ones) may lack incident fact data, the speculations at least have a basis in possibility and typically there are self-correcting forces.

    • Our government is kind of incompetent too, or at the very least willfully dishonest. Probably both. Systematic failure everywhere. No hope.

  3. A Muslim friend told me that whenever there is a theater shot up or a loud explosion, she prays “Please don’t let it be a Muslim” because she says “The Muslims” will be blamed by many other Americans. I never pray “Don’t let it be a white man” because I know no one will blame me for what another white guy does.

    • This is why it is a mistake to not talk more about Islamism and Islamists. Like you say, you’re not going to get blamed for what a white supremacist does.

    • Pat,
      The error of this line of thinking is that “Muslum” is not a race or nationality like a ‘white man’ is. David Duke was used above as a example, but again, while he is white, his religion isnt at issue like those who fly planes into buildings, or blow up planes, or shoot up military bases, or lob grenades into tents of US soldiers, or drive trucks into barracks in Beirut, or plant IEDs, or try to blow up Times Square, etc….

      McVeigh had a warped ideology. Although I share his frustrations with the Govt over Waco and Ruby Ridge, I dont have any motivation or desire to blow stuff up. McVeigh and the Klan who bombed the church in Birmingham didn’t, I do not believe, get a message from a higher power of religion to commit thier acts of terror, nor does the Holy Bible I read urge me to “kill the infidels” (non believers)

      Muslums have not forgiven the ‘white man’ since King Richard’s Crusades. President Obama has made it perfectly clear the ‘people’ he most favors are those of the Muslum faith. Try as the left will, terror will not be unleashed from lawful gun owning TEA Party NRA Members who wave Gadsden flags or join the SCV.

      Boston’s bombing was the fault of Obama’s chosen people. I am sad the left elected him and hold him in such high esteem, as he is the downfall of our Nation.

      • Don’t you love freedom of speech? Funny that someone who urges tolerance of the Confederate cause displays precious little of it himself in this instance. Such is sort of person who supports the the Flagger movement.

        • One of the problems with tolerance as it is conceptualized and popularized today is that it often requires you to reject truth, or become blind to it. Billy just stated the truth. Nobody attempted to refute what he said because nobody can.

          • That would be because what Billy said was utterly ridiculous. Basically he ignored reality in favor of his polemic views. The KKK requires its members be Christian. McVeigh’s views were influenced by his right wing extremism. Eric Rudolph’s actions were driven by his religion. It is pretty easy to punch holes into what Billy said. There’s the first refutation.

            • Religious backgrounds? Pentagon Bomber William Ayers? Weather Underground? Was Eric Rudolph heard shouting “For Jesus Christ!” like a Muslum would shout “Allu Ackbar!” Where in the King James Bible is the verse equivilent to the Quran’s “Kill the Infidels”?

              Obama has stated he would stand with the muslums when the winds turned against them. Muslum outreach programs at N.A.S.A.? Was Obama not a Muslum when he went to the school in Indonesia? Is his name not also Muslum? Has he not been giving the Muslum Brotherhood special favors? Weapons? Where was he on Benghazi? Why cant he say “Radical Islamic Terrorist” or get Holder to charge any Muslum Terrorist as a Enemy Combatant?

              I am very concerned at the shameful loss of greatness of America’s honor and status under this empty suit Barry Soetero. While I may be a bigot in your opinion (thanks! :D ), I seriously question your Patriotism Mr Brooks and Mr Dick.

              • Billy asked,

                Where in the King James Bible is the verse equivilent to the Quran’s “Kill the Infidels”?

                You should read the Bible more, Billy. Try Leviticus 24:13-16:

                13 And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,

                14 Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him.

                15 And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, Whosoever curseth his God shall bear his sin.

                16 And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.

                I’m sure there are other examples, but this one should suffice. The Holy Bible is a very violent book in places, if you haven’t noticed.

  4. In my humble opinion, at least some of this can be attributed to the fact that our so-called news media is really nothing more than another form of popular entertainment pretending to be serious news. All of the regular and cable TV networks cynically use events such as the Boston Marathon bombing to deliberately gin up an atmosphere of crisis and fear. Why? In order to get everyone to stay glued to their televisions and watch. The Boston Marathon bombing was a terrible event and, yes, it certainly deserved significant national coverage. However, the coverage seemed over the top, especially during those long periods when there was nothing to report. At least to some degree, the tweets you refer to result from endless hours of uniformed specuation which is inevitable when talking heads and pundits are desperately trying to fill the void arising from the absence of real news in order to keep people watching. It’s all about the drama, not news. Frankly, I kept my television off for most of it because I really don’t need to have my mind screwed around with a lot of fake excitement and meaningless drama splashed in vivid color splashed across my 1080p 52″ TV screen. Yes, relying on the Internet as a news source certainly has its limitations and problems as well, but I nevertheless prefer to read my news and not watch it. But, that’s just me.

      • The local news here is at least as bad as the national media when it comes to pulling tricks for ratings. For example, the local Fox outlet routinely has its uninformed viewers respond to polls such as “do you think it was a conspiracy or that the brothers acted alone?” Seriously – this is by an alleged news organization. The Weather Channel is the “canary in the mine”. One used to be able to actually get a weather forecast over there. No more – now it’s all recycled reality tv/”weather porn”, with people being swept into flooding rivers, diving into ditches to avoid tornadoes, etc. Unfortunately it seems that these folks’ first 9 priorities are ratings – careful evaluation or confirmation be damned.

        • Oh, I don’t doubt that local news outlets can do odd things … I know so from here, too. But the coverage of the manhunt was fairly good. I had local news on my computer (print correspondents on Twitter, and a local streaming feed) with CNN on the television.

          And don’t get me started on poll questions this week. :)

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