What reaction to Boston attack says about today’s America

Interesting thoughts by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

As always in America, what actually happened today near Boston braided entirely into what was being shown and said, so that the two became inseparable. There were two, and then one, terrorists on the run in a Boston suburb; there were two, and then one, terrorists at large in the American imagination. The strange grim day wore on into the blue-and-white flashing night, with the apparent and blessedly peaceful and rightly well-applauded surrender of a more or less intact Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Then, of course, the cops spoke and officials stepped forward to claim credit, or at least a piece of the spotlight, for the arrest. U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz announced that now “my journey begins.” One imagined the real heroes and heroines of the occasion standing back in the shadows, smiling ironically at the politicians’ posturing. All the while, though, you couldn’t help separate thinking about terrorism from thinking about the way that we represent it.

The incomparable A. J. Liebling wrote once that there are three kinds of journalists: the reporter, who says what he’s seen; the interpretive reporter, who says what he thinks is the meaning of what he’s seen; and the expert, who says what he thinks is the meaning of what he hasn’t seen. The first two—reporters and interpretive reporters—have been largely undermined by economics and incuriosity. But the third category never stops growing. We are now a nation of experts, with millions of people who know the meaning of everything that they haven’t actually experienced.

There are still paradoxes and ironies, surprising heroes and unexpected goats in the new reign. Sometimes the professional experts really are undone by the amateurs. Waking up at six-thirty on Friday morning and hearing what had happened in the night, I followed my own generational instincts, honed on Vietnam and Watergate and the Gulf War, and turned on the television to see the usual stern-jawed “terrorism experts” being stern, scary, and obviously not knowing what the hell they were talking about. Within an hour, with the help of my eighteen-year-old, who insisted on turning from television toward the Web, we had the Tsarnaev brothers’ names, school history, wrestling involvement, vKontakte (Russian Facebook) pages, YouTube videos, and boxing photos.

The toxic combination of round-the-clock cable television—does anyone now recall the killer of Gianni Versace, who claimed exactly the same kind of attention then as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did today?—and an already exaggerated sense of the risk of terrorism turned a horrible story of maiming and death and cruelty into a national epic of fear. What terrorists want is to terrify people; Americans always oblige.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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