For the latest Think Progress, Dan and Libby Anne asked us to talk about tragedy. Specifically:
Yesterday in America we experienced yet another shocking indiscriminate attack on innocent people in a public place. These tend to have a distinctly traumatizing effect on the national consciousness. There are many reasons why. There are many instinctual reactions people have to such events. These are socially, politically, and morally precarious times, as people are terrorized and rumors are intermixed with information and fears and ideological confirmation biases in potentially dangerous ways. So here is my question: What are the ethical responsibilities, priorities, principles, and values that should be foremost in our mind when we interact with others immediately following upon violent attacks? What do we owe each other as fellow humans, as citizens, as teachers, as parents, as social media participants, as members of the media, as political partisans, as activists, as institutions, or in any other roles?
In a word: wait.
I’m seriously tempted to leave it at just that, because this is one of those rare, rare situations where my best advice really can be summed up simply. But somehow as a blogger I’m compelled to elaborate on it, so let me try once more:
Wait. Unless you really and truly must say something, then wait at least forty-eight hours before talking. Longer if you can manage it. We’re so used to living in an instant world, where dinner can be warmed up in ninety seconds, and when the latest news is always available with a few keystrokes into google.com. But honestly, if something is worth knowing will still be worth knowing two or three days from now.
Obviously, if you are the Boston police you need to be getting information out there as soon as you’re sure of it and as soon s the proper people have been notified. (We don’t want the parents who just lost a daughter to hear about it on the news.) Similarly, in some circumstances you head up an organization that has a vested interest in whatever the national conversation will be after a tragedy. After Newtown, the NRA really needed to get out there and somehow contextualize what they support in light of the way guns had just been misused. American Muslims knew from sad experience that Americans equate explosions and terrorism with their religion, so again, it was proper for Muslim groups to make statements that they didn’t support what had been done. The leaders of individual communities may also want to offer support and encouragement to their people, and let them know they’re there to help. (Both my university and my church sent out such emails, along with practical information on how to help.) Obviously if you’re in that position, waiting may not be an option.
But really, how many of us fall in this group. If you are anything like me, you were refreshing CNN.com or googling “boston bombing” a dozen times a day, not because you had work you had to do with the information, but because you just wanted to know. Desperately wanted to know — needed to, even. Acts of terrorism like this are so effective precisely because they rock the comfort zone. They take away our sense of equilibrium about how the world works, and it makes sense to me that people would want to feel in control again. Understanding the situation, knowing who we can blame so we once again feel safe makes sense in that context. It is in many ways a uniquely and thoroughly human response. But in situations like this, in those precarious first twenty-four hours, it’s also the wrong one.
As a theist and a Christian who has been too entirely too many funerals, this is a dynamic I’m very familiar with. Generally, my faith is a real point of strength for me. Even at those points when death rocked my world, I still think the solace of rituals and the tradition that connects me to so many other Christians helped see me through those times. But theism also makes situations like this doubly hard because we are used to thinking of the world as ordered. God’s in His heaven, all’s right in the world, as the saying goes. Any tragedy throws that order out of whack, because of the famous problem of evil. In my more philosophical moments I try to develop a good answer to it (it’s fascinating from that perspective) but when tragedy strikes close to home it’s hard not to feel its weight, at least emotionally. You want to know where the heck God is and why this was allowed to happen.
I think this lack of harmony between what we feel we’re owed and the reality is really a challenge for religious folk — I’m talking here Abrahamic religion; I can’t speak for other religions, but I have to expect the problem would crop up for anyone who thinks the world has a God or gods to enforce justice — because we have this deeply ingrained sense that there’s someone making sure unjust things like this don’t occur. But deep down we all want justice. And lacking that, we all want — need — the sense that this won’t happen again. That requires a narrative we can fit recent events into, and that in turn requires a villain. We need to know his name, and what motivated him. So we turn to the twenty-four hour news, we desperately wait for Jon Stewart’s next episode or start refreshing our Google search as often as we can. Until someone can tell us that story, we can’t feel anything but unsettled.
When I was trying to avoid news in the days after the Boston bombing one of the few things that gave me a laugh was the memory of this passage from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
It struck me as funny, of course (this is Douglas Adams), but I also noticed how apt it was for our drive to hear the news after a tragedy like Boston. If we can just figure out the story of who to blame and why this was an injustice, it will let us convince others and maybe even ourselves that we really do have everything we need, and maybe that will be enough. So we tell ourselves.
But even once we learned the Tsarnaev’s name, knew they were from Chechnya and were (in the words of their uncle) jealous losers, I still felt this hole inside me. I wanted to know more. Could two disaffected barely-out-of-teens pull this off? What political gripe did a few Chechnyans have with America, or Boston for that matter? So when I heard three more arrests were anticipated in the case, I found myself eagerly anticipating some kind of plot that would finally make sense. Just as, before I had heard the news I was sure it was an anti-government group. (April 15 is a day with a lot of history in such circles.) I’m sure other people were thinking Arabs, or other groups I haven’t even thought of. The fact that two “losers” could pull this off leaves us feeling vulnerable because if there is not some reason this happened, how do we know it won’t happen again?
The truth is, in this crazy mixed-up world there aren’t towels big enough to convince any strags around that we really know what we’re getting on with. In those early days there aren’t any towels at all. We all want to feel like froods, but really we’re just bums with our thumbs out, with maybe a little bit of pocket lint and string in our pockets but not much else, trying to make our way to Ursa minor without the first hint of a plan much less any hope of pulling it off. It’s completely understandable we’d want our anchor, our towel, but in those first few hours it’s probably a need worth resisting. That’s something uniquely human as well: we can judge whether some impulses are worth acting on or not. In those first days there’s nothing definite to be known, but the need is so strong, there will be all kinds of people happy to fill the void with the best information they have (that is: rumors, half-truths and outright lies).
So my best advice in the wake of another national tragedy? Wait. Turn off the TV and radio and internet as much as you can. Hug your kids, or go for a walk, or take a copy of The Hunger Games (admittedly not very cheery, but my personal obsession du jour) to the roof of your apartment and soak up some sun while you watch the sun set. Do whatever it takes to lick your wounds and deal with your psychological trauma. It’s real, and it won’t go away just because you understand the why of what’s happened. Just don’t look for meaning and closing on MSNBC, Fox, or CNN. Especially not in those first few hours. They don’t have any towels to offer, either.
(P.S. – Here’s Dan’s original prompt; I’ll add a list of links at the bottom when it’s available.)