Tragedy In Real Time: Living A Terrible Week, Vicariously

Apr 21, 2013
Originally published on April 22, 2013 6:54 am

We have imagined ourselves searching like Kelly Manning for loved ones after the explosions on Boylston Street.

We have pictured ourselves huddling in the basement like Beth and Paul Robinson and their four children as bullets and bombs fly on our own city street.

We have thought about wandering into our backyards like David Henneberry, seeing something amiss, finding something unimaginable.

We have joined Bostonians singing the national anthem at a hockey game. Sat in a car with Derrick Hurtt and daughter Khloey, watching in horror as the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explodes. Witnessed the renewed grief of Newtown parent Mark Barden as gun control legislation dies.

We absorbed these past six days in an instantaneous, nonstop, firsthand-but-once-removed way that now defines our communal experiences.

We see it all now, don't we? The boy balancing on the gate at the end of the race, moments before a kitchen pot bomb would take his life. The boat in the backyard. The boxer, now dead, in the ring. With a girl. Before it all went so terribly bad.

"Jesus, This Week," read a headline on the satirical website The Onion.

And that before the gun battle in the wee hours of Friday on the streets of Boston. Before one Boston Marathon bombing suspect was dead, and the other captured, late Friday, bleeding in Henneberry's boat.

There, of course, have been awful weeks before, terrible tragedies, death, war, uncertainty, raw fear.

But this time, in our full-on, post-Sept. 11 surveillance society and freshly Twitterized media, we were able to experience each event in excruciating, exquisite detail.

Through the saturation of social media, we were also able to experience it equally, whether reporting from the streets of Boston or the scorched explosion site in Texas, from newsrooms in New York or Los Angeles or Berlin, or from our own living rooms and college dorm rooms.

This week, these awful events have cemented the reality that the media is now everyone, anyone with a computer or a smartphone, a Twitter account or a Facebook page.

The Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 was the first major news event reported largely via Facebook, with older journalists whose already outdated tactic of using a telephone enlisting the help of younger ones to reach students.

It was those students who first figured out, through a process of elimination on social media, who was dead.

Now, we sit at our kitchen tables and monitor live feeds of police scanners as they close in, and decide whether or not to open a tweeted file purporting to contain a photo of the dead suspect in a Boston morgue.

As the endless loop of the security camera video of the suspects and their homemade bombs continues to crowd our minds, the questions rain down about whether this new media world is good or bad. Whether the old media, leaning ever more heavily on the new, has been enhanced or embarrassed by it.

The questions matter. The answer is yes.

"It's important that we do this right," President Obama said Friday night. "That's why we have investigations. That's why we gather the facts. That's why we have courts. That's why we take care not to rush to judgment about the motives of these individuals, [and] certainly not about entire groups of people."

He was talking about the judicial process that now has control of the surviving but badly injured Boston Marathon bombing suspect, an ethnic Chechen of the Muslim faith.

But the president's caution was made in an age, he said, of instant reporting, tweets and blogs — a world now almost utterly unhinged from traditional notions.

"It was such a beautiful day in Boston," CBS News anchor Scott Pelley said late Friday, as he summed up the week that was with images of the sunny start of the Boston Marathon.

Before Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu and Krystle Campbell were killed. Before limbs were severed, before MIT police officer Sean Collier was slain, and before at least 14 people died in the Texas explosion.

"All in all, this has been a tough week," Obama said, as Bostonians celebrated the capture in the streets. "We have seen the character of our country."

As well as the raw, new and irresistible world of a media that now, for better or worse, belongs to us all.

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