Can you hear yourself think? Can you manage more than bursts of confusion and anger? Can you feel your own humanity anymore? I’ll admit it — I’ve had trouble this week, too. After an explosion like the one in Boston, it is indeed hard to hear one’s own internal monologue, much less meditate on such horrific events. Polluting that sacred quiet of the mind is both the haunting boom of the bombs themselves and even worse, the noisy coda that we’ve become so accustomed to.
Sensory overload, of course, is the deafening effect of the Catastrophe Aftermath — one of the last unifying and consistent rituals in our atomized nation. Yes, regardless of whether the tragedy is a school shooting or a terrorist attack, the epilogues of these now-constant mass casualty events have become prepackaged productions that seem less like reality than scripted television dramas.
You know how it goes. Cable outlets blare breaking news chyrons. Twitter explodes with declarations that we are “all from (insert city name) today.” Websites post videos of viscera and other disaster porn. Pundits wildly speculate about perpetrators. The president promises justice. Law enforcement press conferences review body counts. Municipal officials insist the community will “stand united.” Funerals commence. A media icon says something outrageous. Other media carnival barkers then react to the bombast. Ultimately, the whole episode becomes another excuse to limit civil liberties and is forgotten by all but those personally affected.
In submitting to this automated formula, a screen-addicted nation has created a distracting defense mechanism — one that further dehumanizes events, which are already, by definition, an assault on our humanity. In the process, we make it more difficult to muster the soul’s ability — and, perhaps, desire — for genuine reflection.
At this point in a column published during the official Catastrophe Aftermath, a writer is supposed to authoritatively offer solutions. But I have none. And you know what? That’s OK because it is entirely human to lack answers right now. All I can offer up are thoughts that shouldn’t be drowned out by the noise.
One is about context. The images from Boston are not merely of mayhem and heroism. With the attack occurring on the day our taxes are due, they should remind a tax-hostile country of the value of public investment — in this case, in first responders who miraculously limited the casualties. They should also generate a sense of sympathy for those in places like Iraq and Syria who face terrorism-related carnage every day.
Another thought is about fear. At one level, it is appropriate. With our country’s wars increasing the possibility of retributive blowback, with the Department of Homeland Security recognizing the threat of domestic anti-government terrorism, and with a heavily armed society not addressing its mental health crisis, we should (unfortunately) expect periodic massacres. But at another level, fear shouldn’t consume us — after all, terrorism is still on the decline worldwide.
Still another thought is about people. The Boston bomber reminds us of the cliché that people suck. But the many who ran toward the blast to save lives remind us that most people do not suck.
One final thought: I arrived at these not-so-profound revelations only when I shut off the screen and opted for introspection instead of the false comfort of flashing pixels. I did this because, as security expert Bruce Schneier, suggests, terrorism “is a crime against the mind” — and therefore one way to combat it is to immerse the mind in a bit of silence. Doing so denies the terrorists their desired glory, allows for the consideration of unanswerable questions and, thus, lets one remember what it means to be truly alive.
That may be the best — if not the only — way to honor the dead and find meaning in such a senseless atrocity.