“It was like watching a television show.”
The rather incongruous sentence often was uttered by people describing what it was like to live through the events in mid-April in Boston. They might have been talking about being caught up in the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, or the hunt for the perpetrators and the shutting down of a major metropolitan area, or the full might of police and federal security forces zeroing in on the two suspects in only a few days. It was, to a great extent, all taking place on TV before the world’s eyes, but the sentence also described the feeling that it all felt vaguely familiar, like a script from the series “24” or a movie thriller.
Even the ending, with neighbors cheering the police as they exited Watertown and college kids streaming into the Boston Common to chant slogans and wave flags had a bit of a made-for-TV feel to it.
Yet the anguish and horror were very real. The terror on the faces of those caught in the violence was unforgettable, as were the stories of those who rushed to the blast sites to apply tourniquets and comfort the wounded and dying.
The stories of people caught in this horror — and often overcoming their own pain and grief to help others — were reminders that this was not Hollywood. Like all sudden tragedies, this was a test of character, and the stories of those who passed the test could bring tears to our eyes.
There is shame enough to go around as well. This was the first real “social media manhunt,” and what we learned is that social media is a great way to spread rumors. The website Reddit became ground zero for unfounded speculation that quickly became “fact,” and even established news organizations fell for it. A missing student from Brown University was named as a suspect, and his family was inundated by media calls. The New York Post, in perhaps the most egregious lack of judgment, displayed photos of two high school students under the headline “Bag Men.”
The media played dual roles for the police: help and hindrance. They consciously were used to communicate specific messages, but at the same time the police had to develop a strategy to address the impact social media was having in terms of false rumors and accusations. This was the year the mob went digital, illustrating the threats to reputations and character that such group-think mechanisms pose.
Now comes the slow reveal as interviews and press conferences and legal affidavits fill in the blanks. Now is when we see how much of the information disseminated in those early hours was false. The news media needs to look at its own role in the 24/7 news environment.
Yet we must remember the moving moments. One came during the Mass and homily of Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley April 21. He condemned the culture of death and quoted Blessed John Paul II: “Respond to the blind violence and inhuman hatred with the fascinating power of love.”
After the Mass, the cardinal said he was opposed to the death penalty for the surviving bomber. “Forgiveness does not mean that we do not realize the heinousness of the crime,” he explained. “But in our own hearts when we are unable to forgive we make ourselves a victim of our own hatred. Obviously as a Catholic I oppose the death penalty, which I think is one further manifestation of the culture of death in our midst.”
Seeking justice is morally appropriate, but politicians already baying for the death penalty is one more symptom of the culture of death that drenches our society.