On the Boston Marathon bombing, Zero Dark Thirty, Social Media, and Life in the 21st Century

I’ve been fighting a horrible cold, one of those illnesses that stretches on for days without any sign of improvement. The last time I remember being this sick was the most recent time I had the flu, and that was more than two years ago. I was feeling bad enough on Monday morning that I typed into the Facebook status update bar that I felt like I was going to die at any moment. I ended up not posting the update, largely because I’m always monitoring myself to prevent over-sharing or being too melodramatic on social media.

Of course, Monday afternoon, someone set off two bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people (so far), and badly wounding hundreds more. Made me feel pretty self-absorbed for bitching about my cold, even if I didn’t actually post the complaint.

There are all sorts of reactions to a tragedy like this. The first reaction is the initial shock most of us feel at the news. I definitely felt this, especially when I saw the initial videos of the explosions. The second reaction is to reach out to loved ones, an impulse I saw many people acting on immediately via social media. I don’t know anyone in Boston, so this wasn’t an issue for me, but as someone with friends and family in New York, I can look back to 9/11 and remember the feeling. The third reaction is to wonder, whodunnit? Was it a strike by some cell of Al Qaeda or some other international terrorist group? Or could it have been an instant of domestic terrorism a la the Timothy McVeigh Oklahoma City bombings?

Obviously, I hope they catch whoever did it. But in terms of what we do moving forward, I don’t think it matters that much.

It so happened that the night before the bombing, I watched Zero Dark Thirty. I thought it was an extremely well made movie, and that Jessica Chastain put on a great performance. But in some ways, I thought that the movie’s ad campaign, as being about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, was not 100 percent accurate. I mean, yes, that is what the movie is about. But really, more than anything else, it’s about one character’s obsessive drive to succeed at a task (in this case, the hunt for bin Laden) at all costs. Think about the last shot in the movie: It’s Chastain sitting by herself in the back of a C130, crying. She’s accomplished her mission, a mission she spent more than a decade working on with complete and utter singlemindedness. The shot, and the implication, echoes the famous school bus scene at the end of The Graduate, leaving the viewer asking the question: What does she do now?

And that’s the question we now ask of ourselves. Of course, Zero Dark Thirty became controversial because of the depictions of detainees being tortured, and the assertion that these “enhanced interrogations” contributed to the ultimate finding and killing of bin Laden. Now, studies have been done that indicate that interrogations involving torture do not lead to useful intelligence. I believe that. On the other hand, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we try to pretend that, in all those years, interrogators never got any information out of any of those “enhanced” sessions that helped in the hunt. Maybe it was info they would have gotten without torture, but either way, I think the odds are likely that, at some point, they got something they could use.

Does this mean I condone the use of torture? No. And let me clarify that, while I may be a bleeding heart liberal, I actually don’t give a fuck about due process for someone who tries to hijack a plane or blow up a bus. There are reasons that terrorism happens (and no, it’s not because “terrorists hate freedom”; it’s usually as a reaction to the United States’ and Western Europe’s imperialistic economic and military policies), but I don’t believe that there are justifications for terrorism. But ever since 9/11, we’ve been negotiating as a people with who we want to be, how we want to define ourselves, how far we’re willing to go to prevent terrorist attacks from happening. Is it worth it to (hypothetically) get the information that leads to the killing of bin Laden from a torture session if it also means you may have detained and abused a (hypothetically) innocent man at Gitmo for eleven years.

Terrorism is a fact of life in the twenty-first century. It was a fact of life in the twentieth and nineteenth centuries as well, but 9/11 removed the illusion of safety so many Americans lived with. So what do we do with that? Do we cancel the Boston Marathon next year? As I said earlier, I don’t have any close friends in Boston. I’ve only been there once as an adult, when I went to the AWP conference last month. But from what I’ve read, the Boston Marathon is a huge tradition there, one of the city’s defining festivals. On the other hand, I lived for years in San Francisco, which is home to Bay to Breakers, a race across the city that doubles as a rolling drunken costume party. I imagine a Bostonian’s feelings about the Marathon are similar to my feelings about B2B. I know that San Franciscans won’t think twice about donning their costumes (or going naked) on May 19 this year, and I know the people of Boston will line up to run next year as well.

This all may seem like a self-centered response to tragedy. And I think it’s important to address that notion, in particular with regard to social media. Social media can both broaden and narrow our perspectives. Twitter provided an outlet for people to share pictures, videos, and on the ground reporting from the site of Monday’s bombing. It also provided Justin Bieber an opportunity to be a self-absorbed twit when he visited the Anne Frank House (I’m shocked! Shocked!). I nearly posted a self-pitying status about my cold on Facebook on Monday. Facebook is also where most of my readers will find this essay, and it’s where many other readers will find many other essays that provide more thoughtful, intelligent, and comprehensive reactions to the tragedy than I am capable of.

The Boston Marathon bombing isn’t about me. I did not lose an eight-year old son. I did not lose a limb. The event that’s forever been altered isn’t particularly precious to me.

But the Boston Marathon bombing is about me, and about you. It’s about what we do next. To say that if we don’t do something, “the terrorists win” is comically cliche at this point, but you know what? If we don’t run Bay to Breakers, if we don’t run the Boston Marathon, if I don’t get on the subway today or you don’t cross the Golden Gate Bridge because you don’t think it’s safe, well, that means the terrorists, whoever they are, win.

Don’t let them win.

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4 Responses to On the Boston Marathon bombing, Zero Dark Thirty, Social Media, and Life in the 21st Century

  1. Robert Tuggle says:

    Cheers, Justin. The attacks are no less directed toward the rest of us than they were at the poor victims involved. Keep up the good words.

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