In the wake of the explosions that rocked the finish line area of yesterday’s Boston Marathon, there has been much commentary and reporting. Of course, because not all of the data is available yet — indeed, precious little is known, other than the fact that the casualty count was mercifully low — much of the “reporting” of this tragic affair has been only a recounting of the shock and horror experienced by those who were there. We have a large pool of photographs and video footage from the scene showing the devastation, but little in the way of hard evidence or reflective commentary.
The other night on Twitter, I got caught up in a brief back-and-forth with a Tara Murtha, a journalist whom I know and respect but with whom I sometimes do a bit of intellectual sparring. That was not our aim that evening, and we quickly acknowledged that in the wake of a tragedy it was not wise to attempt higher debate… nor were we actually approaching the matter from wildly differing viewpoints. The discussion between us started when she linked to an entry on the Boston Globe site.
Something about the way the piece was framed on Boston.com didn’t sit well with me…
… and perhaps I caught some people off-guard when I commented that the “sensationalistic” nature of that entry didn’t sit well with me. Tara — being so intimately a part of the media apparatus in this country — seemed to take exception. She pointed out that the page was simply displaying photographs from the incident… “taking us there” in the only way that journalists could at the present time, given the lack of any other facts. I pointed out as quickly as I could that I had no problem with photojournalists and their work, nor would I ever advocate for censoring the press or withholding details of events, no matter how tragic. Still, I couldn’t get past the fact that something in the reporting was not sitting well with me.
Today, may of us in the tech and security community spent time reading and forwarding around an excellent piece by respected security guru Bruce Schneier. He spoke of how the right course of action is to “empathize but not be terrorized” when we deal with what took place in Boston. After reading that piece, I got a better handle on my thoughts… so I figured I’d share them here.
In the past, Bruce has made a remarkable point about the word “security” and the notion of “being secure”… and how due to a linguistic limitation of English, there are multiple concepts which get represented by this single term. To say that someone is “secure” can mean that they feel safe and sound, or that they actually are protected against harm. Those of us who work in this field know all too well that merely thinking you are safe doesn’t mean you are actually doing anything to make yourself safe. [insert TSA-related commentary here, if you are at a cocktail party]
Today, I started to think about the word “terror” in a similar context. It appears in many of our discussions, headlines, and political speeches in this modern age. And yet, there are a variety of ways that we can interpret the use of this term.
Terror is often thought of as a tactic… employed by terrorists who seek to practice terrorism.
And, yet, for many people “terror” is also a result of these acts. It is the outcome of such attacks, that perpetrators seek to bear upon the masses who were targeted.
That paradox of language is what was so unsettling to me when I viewed much of the news coverage on the evening of Patriot’s Day. To say, in bold headline font, that there was “Terror at the Boston Marathon” could be to convey distinct points.
As a tactic employed by awful people, yes… by all currently-accepted accounts there was “terror” that day. Innocents civilians were targeted and harm was carried out upon the populace.
But, as an expected result desired by the attacker(s)… I would hope that there wasn’t much terror in Boston. Amid the remarkable reports of responders, volunteer staff, and even just mere citizens rushing forward into the fray in order to help others we saw very few people acting in fear. Cowardice was surely NOT the order of the day after the explosions rocked the pavement. On the internet and among phone calls and text messages, I saw a great outpouring of support and dynamic reaction in the form of people helping to spread news of who was safe, where people should go, and even how outsiders could play a role in recovery efforts that very evening (i.e. – stories of where and how to donate blood).
As a city, as a county, and as a people we were all targeted yesterday. Terror was employed in Boston. But I like to think that as Americans we are far too strong for it to have been present at the Marathon that afternoon.
Epilogue – All in all, I must point out that I feel much of the reporting has been decent in the wake of this tragedy. It would appear that many news outlets and editors are at least somewhat familiar with the “three rules of reporting on terrible events” which were recently reiterated by the folks at Reason.
While I understand the desire to write attention-grabbing headlines which plaster the word “terror” in tall, bold font (particularly after the Obama Administration finally alluded to that terminology after carefully avoiding it during the President’s initial reaction speech) I am much more pleased by the outlets who take a more subtle and measured tone. Reporting on the “Bombing of the Marathon” or the “Tragic Events in Boston” is what I much prefer seeing.
My preference is not borne out of a desire to see the press censored or even sanitized in the interest of decorum… but simply because this makes all of the reporting totally unambiguous when it comes to the awful events that day. While terror may have been employed, I prefer to see the story told in a context wherein the people of this country didn’t have their resolve shaken.
We are still the home of the free and the land of the brave, and no assholes with pressure cookers in backpacks are going to change that anytime soon.