Saturday, April 27, 2013
Sensationalism vs. Sense
First of all: if you happen to be from Boston, hats off to you.
As a writer living in this city, I was completely amazed at how this community handled the most violent day in its modern history. The people of Boston didn't just show compassion and bravery in the days following it - they demonstrated those qualities as a knee-jerk reflex. Bombs exploded, and people ran toward them, just seconds after. Three people were killed, but first responders saved dozens of lives in the following moments. The medical tent at the finish line was rearranged for triage. Marathon personnel, who initially signed up to treat dehydration and exhaustion, were called upon to hold tourniquets on the stumps of shredded limbs. A marathon runner, having just finished the 26.2 mile stretch, ripped his shirt off and used it to stem the bleeding of an injured spectator.
Seeing all of this affected me in a way that no other tragic event ever has before, having lived in this city for almost eight of the past nine years. For five of those years, I worked about a hundred yards from where the first bomb went off. I used to get coffee from the Dunks in between where the two explosions occurred. I've had dinner with my girlfriend just feet from where the second detonation happened. Knowing that ground, that sidewalk that I walked over for five years, is stained with blood and scorch marks, hits home in a way that cannot be conveyed to anyone that hasn't themselves experienced it. I, like many I know personally, became obsessed with the capture of whoever would do such a horrible, gutless thing. The news was my lifeline and my tormentor the same, and I couldn't stop watching it.
Were there any photos of Boylston Street when the bombs went off? Hundreds of photographs poured in, showing up on Reddit, 4chan and other online forums. Makeshift memorials formed at the perimeter of the enormous void now present in the heart of our city, cordoned off for the gathering of evidence. Plates with food, credit cards, bags - all eerily left as they were on that sunny Monday afternoon, now ensconced in a veritable hive of law enforcement from all around the country. During that week, friends on my Facebook news feed would post cell phone photos of the military vehicles parked at the edge of Berklee, and in Back Bay.
And then Alex Jones, conspiracy theorist and professional 9/11 "truther", decided that this would be an excellent time to post on his Twitter account about how he thought this tragedy "smells like a false flag".
Not that I'm implying he's the first. No, it would be impossible to identify the individual asshole deserving of that distinction. There were so many, in so many parts of the country, that decided to voice the same thing. Many of my friends from my small hometown in Connecticut often make online postings of the many ways the government is trying to "take away our freedom". A couple of them wasted no time in suspecting that some subversive plot was amiss.
One of my friends linked to a video, shot by a southern man on his Tivo, of a news clip showing the crime scene. A red blur in the corner, described by our amateur journalist as a piece of "blood or gore or whatever", is in the lower right hand corner of the screen. An emergency worker walks in front of it, and it's gone when he has walked past. "Make of it what you will", says our narrator.
Now, I've already come to the conclusion that there are people on my Facebook feed that will be offended and/or unconvinced of anything I say to them in an effort to disprove these fallacies they promote, no matter how much logic or composure with which I approach them. But this pissed me off, personally, so I decided to say something.
"What you're seeing here is what obviously appears to be a piece of cloth that coincidentally blew out of view when the guy walked by."
If you've had this argument with people on the internet before, you already know how he responded:
"I actually don't know what it is, neither do you. Thus the choice of words "obviously appears", which I think are interesting when juxtaposed like that. I just think the video is interesting."
He apparently hadn't noticed the caption underneath the video, which read "Amerikkka master of the inside-job". He chastised me for criticizing what he viewed to be an innocuous blog posting, said that he wasn't purporting any conspiracy theory, and told me that I shouldn't be afraid to ask questions. Another person interjected with the truth - that it was, indeed, a fabric flag on the sidewalk that had been pulled aside as a person walked by in the foreground - but he then claimed that my friend "shouldn't be condemned or feel guilty for expressing his suspicions".
He continued: "Every individual's observations are different; alternative possibilities should never be discounted until disproved through overwhelming evidence - which can only come through motivated inquiry.
It is factually evident that the (full) truth is rarely what is reported. It's imperative that people investigate, interpret and question events that occur. Such activities may be sensitive to some, but it is the general responsibility (but not always interest) of society to reveal the realities around us, as it is the intention of others - outside or above the public - to construct it to their advantage."
Am I alone in thinking that both of these people were full of shit? While he makes a convincing defense of the consideration of alternative ideas, he's ignoring the obvious implications of the initial posting, and how a quick Google search would have invalidated said post in the first place. Where's the rapturous defense for integrity when it comes to propagating ideas? Where's the concern in verifying these stories before spreading them?
This kind of lazy speculation, made public through online forums, is far from harmless. The New York Post ran a full-front-page photo of an olive-skinned young man in a blue jacket, carrying a duffel bag, who they (and a majority of online "sleuths") assumed to be the culprit. Any one of the reporters at the newspaper, or any one of these anonymous online commentators, should have noticed that there are no photographs of this man dropping his bag before the explosion. An innocent seventeen year old kid - the subject of all these rumors - was traumatized as the result of being incorrectly identified, by today's version of an unruly mob, as the Boston Bomber.
Even though we now know the two people who did this, there are still doubters who allege foul play. This speculation is raised despite a murdered 26 year old police officer, a car-jacking, testimony from the car-jacking victim, a lengthy gun battle, complete with homemade grenades, the eyewitness accounts of several witnesses at the marathon (one of whose legs were blown off by the bag set next to his feet), bombs and bomb making materials found at one of the suspects' apartments, along with several photographs and a video that show the suspects clearly dropping the bags at the sites of the explosions. One would think all that would be enough to convince anyone with an active neuron that the two people implicated in this crime were guilty.
Unfortunately for us, it seems as if there is no question too stupid for the internet to answer.
It isn't even a week after they caught the 19 year old kid who did this with his 26 year old now-dead brother, and already, people are saying he's been framed - that the government hired his older brother to run intel for them; that the CIA commissioned them to bomb the marathon, and then turned him in through the FBI; that the "true culprit" is still out there, and that the kid can't speak because they tortured him. Photos of the bombing circulate through online forums, overwritten with "17 Unanswered Questions About The Boston Marathon Bombing The Media Is Afraid To Ask" (all of which are composed of circumstantial associations and twisting of information). It doesn't really help that the mother of these brother culprits cries in every interview about how "her sons couldn't do this" and how "America took my sons away from me".
What the hell could possibly be politically advantageous in all of this? If the U.S. Government is behind this, what could their motive possibly be? To wound the American psyche to the point of submission? To beat us into a state of fear, in which we can be corralled into a tightly regulated socialist bureaucracy?
Do you honestly believe elected officials are that subversive? And even if they are, do you think that we are that stupid?
I'll tell you what I think.
I think all of these people crowing about the "conspiracy" in Boston are bored. I think they're a collection of shut-ins - social malcontents that have nothing better to do than to find conflict in others' lives, to make up for the lack of conflict within their own. And I think the internet provides a forum for these idiots to converge on a series of unfounded ideas that would get them laughed out of most real-life discussion circles.
If we look at the two suspects involved, we can see the dangers of this social isolationism. The Boston bombings weren't just an example of what happens when two young adults form a mutual hatred against the society they live in - it shows what can happen when impressionable individuals find communities with which to validate unfounded, irrational mental constructs. I'm not saying that conspiracy theorists are bound to be terrorists - that would really be overreaching. But I am saying that if there's a stupid idea out there, there's somebody else just as stupid, who's going to be vocal about it. And we now live in an age where the relative isolation of these ideas is no longer a hindrance to their endorsement amongst other people.
My girlfriend, my sister, and my family all criticize me for engaging these people, as I've been vocal with issues such as gun control, vaccinations, and health care. While they agree with my sentiments, they say things like "you're only wasting your time", and "you're throwing your energy into a vacuum". After a couple years of acclimating to the social networking monstrosity that is Facebook, I've come to the conclusion that: yes, my folks are correct and; no, I have no ability to convince these people that their delusional musings only hurt the chances of an enlightening exchange of ideas actually taking place. But the furor over the Boston bombings has rekindled the indignant anger I feel towards this willful ignorance.
Who the hell do these assholes think they are? These are people that never bothered to move more than twenty miles from where they grew up, and they think they've got the qualifications to determine what happened hundreds of miles away? Hell, Alex Jones lives in Texas - what gives him the right, or the gaul, to say that the Boston bombings were plotted by the CIA? Who at Blacklisted News or Endthelie.com is even remotely informed enough to say such a thing? Does it strike anyone as even remotely suspicious that these organizations interpret every national tragedy - 9/11, the Newtown massacre, the Aurora shootings, the Sikh temple shootings - as a secret false-flag scheme, planned by our government, to take our civil rights away?
Please keep in mind, that since the bombing has taken place, the government has decided that this kid should, and will, be given a trial. He will get to defend himself in court just like any other citizen of this country would. Despite all the musings of these sensationalist websites and Google-pundits, and despite the very real efforts of a few militaristic Republican legislators, he will be granted the same civil liberties as the people he murdered, as the people whose legs he destroyed, whose hands he mangled, whose lives he has irreparably altered. And that is as it should be, because we are a civilized nation. We will enforce justice, not revenge.
And yet, a determined few demand that we view this tragedy through the lens of skeptical distrust of "the system".
If you still can't understand why all of this fear-mongering conspiracy is offensive, then consider this hypothetical situation:
A close relative has just died, suddenly and without warning. The doctors at the hospital inform you that they died of an aneurism, that there was nothing that could be done, and that there is no discernible precursor as to why that would happen - but they show you the MRI taken before death which shows the burst blood vessel. After a long week of grieving, talking with family members, and consoling with your siblings, you feel as well as to be expected - depressed, but resolved, and more at peace with what happened.
And then, at the reception after burial, one of your friends comes up to you. With passionate insistence, he explains that what really happened to your dead relative was that they were the victim of an experimental vapor, being pumped out by airplanes in contrails all over the U.S., and that the government is behind it.
There is no logical rationale for your friend's assumptions. His evidence consists of a series of pictures of vapor condensation left by airplanes, with time signatures showing how long they last in the air; a series of unsubstantiated studies, that claim there are new compounds being found in the atmosphere that defy rational explanation; testimony of several anonymous internet witnesses, who speak of people they know of that suffered the same fate; all of this, of course, he shows you on his phone.
"I'm just asking questions. We have to ask questions in order to get to the real truth. Otherwise, we're just living the lie they want us to believe."
If your reaction is anything other than striking your friend in the face, hats off to you.
You have more patience than I.