The kids were smart, but they weren’t that smart – they were high school seniors at an exclusive prep school in upstate New York, but still raw and new. There wasn’t much point in asking them to make sense of Eliot’s The Waste Land – every time Eliot got to the nub of things he shifted to Latin or Greek or German. They’d stop reading right there. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was more immediate – “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix” and all that. They’d get it. What randomly angry adolescent wouldn’t? It was something to latch onto, but then Ginsberg was all about what he saw as the absolutely toxic forces of capitalism and conformity, and these kids would soon be off to Harvard and Yale and Princeton, and then they’d run the family business or start one of their own. The parents would howl, so it would be Shelley or Keats or whatever, or a bit of William Butler Yeats. Forget that Robin Williams movie – there’s no such thing as a subversive English teacher.
What the kids missed is how Eliot opened his poem with that brilliant stuff about how April is the cruelest month, when things are very right and very wrong at the same time. And it was existentially scary – “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” That’s a line that sums up a lot about life, a line that sticks with you. And yes, April is the cruelest month:
Two powerful bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon, killing at least three people, including a child, and injuring at least 100 as one of this city’s most cherished rites of spring was transformed from a scene of cheers and sweaty triumph to one of screams, bloody carnage and death.
About three-quarters of the 23,000 runners who participated in the race had already crossed the finish line when a bomb that had apparently been placed in a garbage can exploded in a haze of smoke amid a crowd of spectators on Boylston Street, just off Copley Square in the heart of the city. It was around 2:50 p.m., more than four hours after the race had started, officials said. Within seconds, another bomb exploded several hundred feet away.
Pandemonium erupted as panicked runners and spectators scattered, and rescue workers rushed in to care for the injured, some of whom had lost their legs in the blast, witnesses said. The reverberations were felt far outside the city, with officials in Washington heightening security on public transit and shutting down streets near the White House. Pennsylvania Avenue was cordoned off by the Secret Service in what one official described as “an abundance of caution.”
Out here in Los Angeles, and in many cities, the police moved to tactical alert, but then it was April:
Some officials noted that the blasts came at the start of a week that has sometimes been seen as significant for radical American anti-government groups: it was the April 15 deadline for filing taxes, and in Massachusetts it was Patriots’ Day. It is also a week that has seen attacks in the past: April 19 is the anniversary of the deadly 1993 fire near Waco, Tex., that ended a 51-day standoff and left 80 members of a religious group called the Branch Davidians dead. April 19 is also the anniversary of the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, which prosecutors said was conceived in part as a response to the Waco raid.
At this point the story is still raw. A few other bombs were found, which didn’t go off, or weren’t bombs at all, depending on the source, and nothing much else happened – the big bomb that went off across town at the JFK Library turned out to be a small electrical fire and not a bomb at all. That was fear in a handful of dust, but no one knows who did this or why, save for this:
Investigators interviewed an injured man at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who had been seen running from the scene of the first explosion, a person briefed on preliminary developments in the investigation said on Monday afternoon. A senior law enforcement official said early Monday evening that the man was a Saudi citizen, about twenty years old, who, according to witnesses, was acting suspiciously before the blast. The official said he was being questioned by the FBI and the Boston police. The man has not been charged and is among several people who have been or were being questioned by investigators.
He may be the guy who did this, or one of the guys who did this, but no one knows. The Boston police were clear. Nobody – and they meant nobody – had been arrested. It wasn’t time to start another war in the Middle East, but that didn’t stop Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post – they initially reported fifty dead and the Saudi guy behind it all arrested, but finally readjusted their story to match something like reality. There was no apology. Fear was in the air, and there was money too, and that newspaper is what it is:
Because of the institution of federal regulations limiting media cross-ownership after Murdoch’s purchase of WNEW-TV (Now WNYW-TV) and four other stations from Metromedia to launch the Fox Broadcasting Company, Murdoch was forced to sell the paper for $37.6 million in 1988 to Peter S. Kalikow, a real-estate magnate with no news experience. When Kalikow declared bankruptcy in 1993, the paper was temporarily managed by Steven Hoffenberg, a financier who later pleaded guilty to securities fraud; and, for two weeks, by Abe Hirschfeld, who made his fortune building parking garages. After a staff revolt against the Hoffenberg-Hirschfeld partnership – which included publication of an issue whose front page featured the iconic masthead photo of founder Alexander Hamilton with a single tear drop running down his cheek – The Post was repurchased in 1993 by Murdoch’s News Corporation. This came about after numerous political officials, including Democratic governor of New York Mario Cuomo, persuaded the Federal Communications Commission to grant Murdoch a permanent waiver from the cross-ownership rules that had forced him to sell the paper five years earlier. Without that FCC ruling, the paper would have shut down. Under Murdoch’s renewed direction, the paper continued its conservative editorial viewpoint. …
According to a survey conducted by Pace University in 2004, the Post was rated the least-credible major news outlet in New York, and the only news outlet to receive more responses calling it “not credible” than credible (44% not credible to 39% credible)…
In 1995, owner Rupert Murdoch relocated the Post’s news and business offices to the News Corporation headquarters tower at 1211 Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue) in midtown Manhattan. The Post shares this building with Fox News Channel and The Wall Street Journal, both of which are also owned by Murdoch.
Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald takes it from there:
Should we even be surprised that after an event like the bombing of the Boston Marathon today, immediate suspicion would turn to Muslims? Muslims themselves were not. “The thought of every Muslim right now,” tweeted Dubai-based Al-Aan TV journalist Jenan Moussa: “Please don’t be a ‘Muslim.'”
It’s easiest to explain unexplainable – or yet unknown – things by forcing them into an existing worldview…. Of course, the Post’s report – which Fox News picked up – has zero named sources, zero quotes, and was contradicted by the Boston commissioner, who said authorities have no suspects in custody yet, but why let that get in the way of what you’re sure is true?
They will show you fear in a handful of dust, and there’s not much to do about it:
As if to anticipate such a meme spreading, every major Muslim group in America sent out press releases condemning the attacks and offering their sympathy, something no other racial or religious group is expected to do after such events, (though many do). “American Muslims, like Americans of all backgrounds, condemn in the strongest possible terms today’s cowardly bomb attack on participants and spectators of the Boston Marathon,” CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad said in a statement.
But that didn’t stop the speculation, and not just from people like Pamela Geller or Fox News regular Erik Rush. Or Bryan Fischer, who said on twitter, “NBC: suspect a student who was here on a student visa. Anybody want to rethink Muslim immigration?” These people have made careers peddling inflammatory rhetoric. If Pam Geller didn’t immediately blame Muslims, it might be a good idea to send someone over to make sure she’s feeling okay.
As for Pam Geller, see this:
Seizing on a thinly sourced New York Post report that police have ID’d a Saudi national as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings this afternoon, Islamophohbic blogger and activist Pamela Geller is ready to lay the blame. In her take, the alleged suspect becomes a “Jihadi” and there isn’t any doubt in Geller’s mind that he did it. She wrote on her blog Atlas Shrugs under the headline, Jihadi Arrested in Horrific Boston Marathon Bombing – “Jihad in America. 12 dead, 50 injured. My deepest condolences to their loved ones. Monstrous.”
And she wouldn’t back down:
On Twitter, she elaborated on her certainty about the attack and shamed those who dare doubt her. “Blood on your hands,” she tweeted at Eli Clifton of the American Independent News Network, who responded to her tweet. “Shame on you, carrying water for murderers,” she said to a human rights law student. “Another spokesman for killers,” she responded to another. “‘Holy war’ means dead people,” she added. “Savages,” she said to another, by way of explanation.
Such folks were coming out of the woodwork:
Alex Jones, who has become the country’s preeminent conspiracy theorist, wasted no time. As with 9/11, Sandy Hook and other national tragedies, he sees the Boston explosions as a “false flag” attack committed by the government. The objective this time: Expanding the Transportation Security Administration’s reach to sporting events…
It got predictably absurd, as Alex Seitz-Wald documents:
This isn’t new by any means. After the Oklahoma City Bombing (which happened on the same holiday, Patriots’ Day, almost two decades ago), CNN identified four Arab Americans in connection with the bombing, who later all turned out to be innocent, of course. CBS interviewed Steven Emerson, a controversial self-styled Islam expert who throws in the Gellers of the world. And that should be a note of caution to anyone trying to jump to conclusions now.
That includes the Alex Jones set, now joined by former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, who sees the attack as an inside job, but they will be laughed out of town and never taken seriously.
On the left, a theory of its own was hatched, with more than a few whispering about the possibility of right-wing extremists (as was the case with the Oklahoma City Bombing). Monday, after all, is Patriots Day, an important day on the fringe-right, as well as Tax Day. But few liberals would actually articulate this notion, knowing that if they did, they’d get pilloried for it.
Yep, anyone who even mentions the possibility of right-wing terrorism will be run out of town. The people ready to blame the Muslims, one more time, do have no incentive to stop. Of course John McCain might now call for the impeachment of Barack Obama, as this is kind of like Benghazi, sort of, and far worse. Wayne LaPierre might call for all runners to be fully armed from now on, although no one knows a runner who thinks that carrying an AR-15 and multiple clips would improve their time, or do much about roadside bombs. And no one knows a damned thing yet, or was all that surprised. Something like this was coming.
David Sirota makes that point:
My initial reaction was the same as that of many people with loved ones in Boston – entirely personal and worried about possible friends and family who might have been maimed or, god forbid, killed. But while I fretted and texted and called, I also realized that something had changed in me – and in all of us – since I fled the U.S. Capitol back on Sept. 11, 2001. What had changed was that while I was nervous, worried, disgusted and anxious – and while I was shaking my head muttering rhetorical questions about the senselessness of the world – I was no longer shocked.
This is simply life, now, in the post-9/11 era:
Yes, it’s true; since humans put pen to paper to report current events, news has always been defined by the “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos. But in recent years, with the heightened prospect of terrorism, the proliferation of mass shootings and the persistence of now-mundane gun violence, the aphorism seems like it has been flipped around: If it leads, or if it is even considered news, it inevitably must bleed.
Sirota finds that odd:
We know that violent crime is down. We also know that terrorism worldwide is down.
On the other hand, we know that mass shootings have accelerated and that what the CIA calls “blowback” means that the possibility of retributive terrorism for our invasions and wars is persistent, if not on the rise. We also know from both the Department of Homeland Security and the high-profile episodes of anti-government terrorism that the possibility of domestic-sourced political violence is real.
In a 24-7 media environment that relies on visual stimuli, these latter realities get the disproportionate share of coverage, pounding home the notion that regardless of the general facts and statistics, we should be constantly afraid for our lives and, thus, unsurprised that we feel such fear on a daily basis.
This is fear in a handful of dust, not hard statistics, but somehow logical:
Think about it: We are a nation that is regularly bombing others, and often killing many civilians. As the Council on Foreign Relations noted, that is bound to generate retributive violence. We are also a heavily armed nation whose political and entertainment media is filled with apocalyptic rhetoric and rogue-celebrating story lines that glorify violence. In that sense, it is amazing (and incredibly fortunate) that there haven’t been more mass terrorism events in America.
And our failure to be surprised is an admission:
It is an admission that we know we have made choices as a nation that have intensified preexisting problems and created new dangers. It is also an admission that we know those choices have constructed a new reality that is, indeed, frightening.
That new reality may be frightening, but it sure beats the conspiracy theories, as Slate’s David Weigel reports this:
Dan Bidondi, a “reporter/analyst” (sic) for Alex Jones’s InfoWars, managed to ask Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick the very first question in a nationally televised press conference:
“Why were the loud speakers telling people in the audience to be calm moments before the bombs went off? Is this another false flag staged attack to take our civil liberties and promote homeland security while sticking their hands down our pants on the streets?”
Patrick, looking on with a mixture of rage and pity, said “no” …
Rage and pity were appropriate, but Weigel argues that this time these conspiracy folks are out of luck, for technical reasons:
Too many cameras and witnesses – There’s hi-definition video of the first explosion from Boston.com, and there’ll inevitably be more video from the spectators filming their friends at the finish line. Compare this to the classic founts of conspiracy-think: The meetings at Bohemian Grove, the Pentagon’s damage on 9/11, the Kennedy assassination. The massacres at Sandy Hook, Aurora, and the parking lot in Tucson happened with no video cameras rolling.
Bad information dies quicker these days – Most 9/11 conspiracy theories, as my colleague Jeremy Stahl discovered in 2011, were rooted in erroneous news reports. These things happen; Reporters on the scene are hustling and chasing rumors and tips, and sometimes bogus news gets out. But rumors don’t fester like they used to. Shoddy rumors are run up the Twitter flagpole and then debunked; video, which includes the errors, can live online forever, but so can the corrections issued by the networks.
Add that no politician really stands to gain here, as no current issue is at play in any of this, along with this consideration:
So far, the conspiracies are weak. And so easily debunked! There were no “loud speakers telling people in the audience to be calm.” Jones seems obsessed with proving that there were bomb-sniffing dogs on site. It’s a comforting worldview – the only way that police on the scene might have missed the bombs is a conspiracy of silence. You can understand why they cling to this. Maybe they shouldn’t get the first questions during the press conferences, though.
Isn’t it enough that we’ve been shown fear in a handful of dust? Death comes out of nowhere. There seems little point in making things worse, spinning this mad theory or that, saying that this, certainly, is why this thing happened.
At this point the story is twelve hours old. The death toll will rise, and sooner or later we’ll find out why this happened, or even worse, we’ll never find out. It’s like that in any waste land, where howling may be appropriate. “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” That’s how William Carlos Williams put it.