Know When It’s Bullshit

I’ve never been this close to terrorism before. I was not exactly close to the Boston Marathon bombings, being at work 14 miles away when I heard about them, but this is closer than I was to 9/11 (I was a freshman in a New Mexico high school), and far closer than I am to any of the innumerable acts of terrorism, both state-sponsored or otherwise, around the globe.

So seeing bombs go off in an area I walk through pretty much every time I go into the city really brings it home. I’ll admit the concept never really seemed real to me. If that sounds like a mark of my privilege brought on by the good fortune to be a relatively well-off, well-educated man in a first-world country, that’s because it is. If this is what gets me thinking about our ethical responsibilities in the wake of tragedy, so be it. I started thinking. And as I thought, the same douchecopters started shooting up MIT, at a building where I once attended a conference. The manhunt for the second guy is still playing out right now as I write one town east of where I live. It’s been a shitty week for Boston, for sure, but one that’s prompted a lot of thought.

And my thinking always brings me back to the same conclusion. I’m no ethicist, but I’ll put it as succinctly as I can. In times of tragedy, it is an ethical responsibility to not succumb to irrationality.

Sounds kind of cold, right? The people who ran toward the explosions in Boston to help probably weren’t doing it because they judged it the most logical thing to do. The outpouring of support we received from around the country and the globe wasn’t motivated by hard reason. Isn’t there a place for emotion in this?

Absolutely. (I reject the notion that emotional responses are inherently and completely irrational, but that’s another argument.) We’ve seen a flood of emotion surrounding these events. The whole city pulled together. Those who gave prayers, money, and blood should be praised for giving money and blood.

It’s a very emotional and chaotic situation—a bombing and a shootout. But watching the way it’s playing out is actually quite noteworthy. For all the talk of prayer and God-help-us, what really made this whole situation not dissolve into a complete chaotic clusterfuck has been the actions of human beings. In the first responders and the investigators, we’ve seen a measured, reasoned, deliberate response of people doing their jobs like the poster says: keeping calm and carrying on. Even in the heat of a manhunt for an apparently very slippery suspect, the police move very, very carefully, covering all angles, combing locations thoroughly. The news coverage is all over the place (one of them’s married, one of them’s a fundamentalist Muslim, etc.), but the local media here has maybe learned from the mistakes of CNN. Mostly what they’re reporting is police movements and the progress of the manhunt. When they do speculate about the suspect, they have been trying very hard to not state hearsay as if it were fact, making sure that allegations remain alleged.

Which is perhaps less than can be said for some people.

There are two ways we tend to lose our heads in the wake of tragedy. One comes on very quickly in tight cycles of fear and paranoia.

In the immediate wake of the bombing, conservative radio host and ball of unbaked cookie dough Alex Jones was out there waving the false flag flag, insisting that the bombings were perpetrated by the government in order to blame the Tea Party and give the TSA more range to grope people. His evidence? The attack happened on Patriot’s Day, a special day in the militia movement. But you know what? I can wildly speculate, too. It was also Tax Day, so clearly the bombing was the work of anti-tax extremists! Oh, wait, the suspects they chased around the mall where I go shopping for DVDs are a couple of college-age Chechens. Both narratives: blown out of the water.

Glenn Beck’s getting in on the fun. When, after the bombing at the Marathon, it was revealed that police were interested in a person of Saudi origin, he and the rest of the right wing immediately assumed that this was the guy and it absolutely had to be Islamic terrorism and that the federal government wanted to cover up any Saudi or Al-Qaeda involvement by deporting him:

Remember also, the Saudi national that was — is about to get on a plane — involved in blowing the legs off of American citizens, being held in protective custody or being protected, at least, by our administration.

Except he got the guy (who was in the hospital) confused with another guy, because, you know, all Saudis are the same. Quoth the Dept. of Homeland Security:

There is a second Saudi national from the Boston area who is in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody for being in violation of his visa. This case has nothing to do with the Boston Marathon.

I see things from people on my Facebook feed as well. Boston EMTs got a new app to help deal with mass trauma 3 days before the Marathon! There was a bomb squad drill at the same time as the marathon!! Family Guy predicted the attack!!! The dead principal of Sandy Hook Elementary was sitting at the finish line!!!!

  1. EMTs need technology to help them do their jobs, and need to be prepared for a mass trauma event at any time. They need all the help they can get, whenever they can get it.
  2. No there wasn’t. Why would the BPD hold a drill on the same day as an event when they needed all their resources to secure the very long, very difficult to monitor marathon route?
  3. … what? (The clip, from an episode called Turban Cowboy, is actually two clips from the episode splice together to make it look like Family Guy predicted bombs at the Marathon)
  4. Now you’re saying that the principal of Sandy Hook didn’t really die and was in Boston to watch the marathon blow up? Do you have any idea a) how insane that is and b) what you’re saying to her family? “The person you mourned didn’t actually die! She’s just a tool of the government used to take our guns!”

There are many reasons to be concerned about governmental overreach. Those on the left and right sometimes agree on them, though they come at them from different angles. But regardless of where you fall, the human ability to find connections leaps into overdrive when we have a point we want to make and might be able to make the other guy look like a monster. Conspiracy theories provide an attractive vessel for this kind of narrative.

Now the FBI says “trust us and no one else”!!!!!

No, what the FBI said was this:

“…these images should be the only ones, I emphasize, the only ones that the public should view to assist us. Other photos should not be deemed credible, and they unnecessarily divert the public’s attention in the wrong direction, and create undo work for vital law-enforcement resources.”

What that means is that the FBI has a set of images on which they’re basing their investigation on, and if you want to help, you should use the same images as a basis for your own investigation. When you go rogue on the evidence, this happens:

Yesterday, a Reddit user posted a new, startlingly clear image of the aftermath of the explosion, that shows, on the far left, what looks very much like one of the FBI’s suspects fleeing the scene. After Philip Bump, an Atlantic Wire writer and Photoshop expert, explained why he believed the image was genuine the New York Times confirmed the photo’s authenticity.


…armed with this new, clearer photo, and giddy from having uncovered it, the message board investigative geniuses then determined that “suspect two” was a missing college student.

Sunil Tripathi is a Brown University student from Pennsylvania who has been missing since March 16.

Ahh, nope! Sunil Tripathi ≠ Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

It’s like two scientists doing the same experiment on different data sets: the odds of different results are very high. Tempting as it is to mistrust anything any governmental organization ever does at any time, the U.S. government and its agencies are far too huge and complex for there to be a top-down conspiracy to hide the truth about every situation. I’m not asking for anyone to be given the benefit of the doubt, but I am asking that the evidence about the situation be evaluated based on what is gathered without interpolating every random hypothesis that happens to confirm your worldview.

“But but but… we’re just asking questions!” cry the conspiracy theorists.

Bullshit. While people are grieving, recovering in the hospital, or even just really, really on-edge while a manhunt goes on in their neighborhoods, you’re looking for anything that would validate your paranoia. It happened with Sandy Hook, too, with an entire “Sandy Hook truth” movement springing up to advance the theory that the shooting was staged as an excuse to pass sweeping gun control. The go-to response for events like these seems to be to look for as many paranoid conspiracy theories as one can fit in a browser window, weave them all together, and insist that any disaster means the gubmint is out to getcha. They’ve been scared about federal gun grabbers and the (so far phantom) specter of nationwide gun registration despite the fact that the Feds already have your address on file (it’s on your driver’s license) and requires you to register your car, a machine whose purpose is not wrapped up in bring used to propel lead into flesh. If having your personal data on file leads to Nazi Germany, I’d be in a concentration camp already. Meanwhile, the deaths of the people involved are reduced to non-events or even denied entirely. We have to examine our priorities and see what order they’re really in.

If it happens that you’re right, the odds still favor the truth coming out by careful investigation. Coverups don’t work. Watergate. Iran-Contra. The Catholic sex-abuse scandal. We now know we were lied into war in Iraq. We have now acknowledged that the U.S. government tortured terror-detainees. The longer you insist on a conspiracy without favorable evidence coming to light, the less likely it is to be true. And no, your feverish desire to see conspiracy in every coincidence is not evidence. There’s a threshold at which the amount of coincidences implies some deeper cause. “One” is not that threshold.

We do not know all the facts yet, but that doesn’t mean you get to make up your own. Only the truth will give the families of the dead any closure. Question everything, but know when the answer you come up with is bullshit. And know when your bullshit is hurting people. Doing otherwise muddies the waters and makes it that much harder to prevent future incidents like these.

But, like I said, there are two ways we tend to lose our heads after a tragedy. The second comes on so slowly that we often don’t realize it’s happened until the triggering in incident is far-distant enough to be considered just another historical event.

The city of Boston and surrounding areas are on lockdown as they hunt for the second suspect. Okay, fine—it’s a nerve-wracking situation. When they get him, how long before we return to normal life? If we shouldn’t descend into paranoia on an individual level, we certainly shouldn’t on a societal level. 9/11 got us the USA PATRIOT act passed in the dead of night. The very idea of terrorism, especially “foreign” terrorism, makes us as a nation curl up and wet the bed and then lash out at any group that seems like it might almost maybe kinda possibly be responsible (you know, like Sikhs, because wearing a turban is totally Muslim religious requirement). As a society, we can either make decisions based on good information or flail around like a dog worrying a rifle—in one case we’ll have made an informed decision, in the other we just end up hurting ourselves and anyone who gets in the way.

While half the media swore up and out the bomber was a white guy and the other half insisted it had to be an dark-skinned Muslim, the suspects turned out to be white guys who are likely Muslim. It’s already clear that this attack is going to be a tough fit for a preset template. So who do we blame?

Blame the two guys that did it, because that’s all the evidence we have. Just like there’s no government conspiracy to use bombs in Boston to curb your freedoms, there’s no Chechen or Muslim conspiracy to plant bombs on American soil. The Tsarnaev brothers are not all Chechens just like Al-Qaeda are not all Muslims. Don’t go profiling everyone of Chechen origin. Scrutinizing Muslims or Central Asians or immigrants or college students, for that matter—because these guys were 19- and 26-years-old, respectively—does nothing to prevent the next attack that comes form a completely different quarter. Figure out how to better secure open sporting events and figure out if these guys belong to some kind of group or not instead of advocating a ban on Muslim immigration. We need to behave like the first responders, not the conspiracy theorists. React to the event in context and do what we can to prevent others like it from happening again, and know when our reaction is bullshit.

It’s easy to overreact. We want a narrative. A plea for moderation and reason feels like it really falls flat in the face of that. We want a black-cloaked bad guy who we can send wave after wave of eagle-bombs against and drive into the ground with heroic ‘Merica power, but let’s examine our place in the world.

I Skyped my grandmother the day after the bombing. She still lives in India—in the south, which hasn’t seen the uptick in violence the rest of the country has suffered in recent years—but she was very cognizant of the uncertainty that even a simple act like going to the market can entail. There, many people go out to buy bananas and come home without limbs, or never come home at all. Here, some people went out to watch a race and never came back.

My fiancée and I got to talking afterwards, and the main question we kept asking was “What if this is the new normal?”

It probably isn’t. Terrorist attacks are a rarity, especially in this part of the world, but the prospect of a bomb is a statistically significant possibility in other places.

Image from the Washington Post

But as we contemplate the possibility of leaving our safe bubble, we should use the time to examine the facts closely and discover why these events happen, and examine ourselves to determine what we can do to stop it.

The world appears to have gone crazy, which means we have to work extra hard to be sane in the face of it. We give in to fear and irrationality and we give up on the only things that could actually stop incidents like the Boston bombings in the future. The work that the world needs will never get done.

About nkrishna

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One Response to Know When It’s Bullshit

  1. Pingback: Fiction and the Language of Conspiracy | Hapax Legomenon

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