Media and the demon dare of terrorism

Twelve years tick off changes in media as much as they replay the same horrible narrative of terror.  In 2001, we watched news camera clips on endless replay.  Today, scenes from Boston are broadcast continuously, but from the myriad angles of bystander smartphone uploads.  A decade from now these will likely be synthesized into a video-game-like virtual experience.  We will walk through terror events and experience them unfolding as if we were there.  As we struggle with the Boston bombing, we must pay attention to what this ritual of media immersion does to us.

The terrorist aims to hijack the narrative of everyday life.  Terror corrodes the unthought safety of our daily routines, turning once unseen garbage cans into omnipresent threats.  It colors ominous our most precious moments of mundane joy, like…dear God… exuberant 8 year olds running to embrace their fathers.

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Media extends the terrorist's reach, surrounding us with crisis.  Long after those fateful seconds have passed, we continue to relive them.  The screen makes us spectral witnesses reliving endless replays: an aged man collapses, medics and volunteers rush to save the injured, and young Martin smiles holding his sign, “No more hurting people.”  Our deepest moral instincts scream out for us to act, but we are not there, the screen does not allow that.

So much concern, yet there is nothing we can do.  Jonesing on the story, we manically refresh our browsers like lab rats, seeking any clue about who did this and why.  We await their capture and the unfolding of the narrative they have written for us all with explosives, nails,… and other people’s blood.  Media immersion channels our moral energy into the terrorist’s dark story.

In 2001 that energy went through quick changes:  Shock. The adrenaline rush to check on the safety of loved ones.  Then a few days of disaster intimacy; conversations with neighbors under quiet skies; lines at blood clinics for survivors we would learn did not exist.  Solidarity soon shaded subtly into patriot flags.  Once we knew our attackers, we succumbed to the terrorist’s demonic dare: “Return my hate.  Let it give you meaning.”  We yoked our story to theirs.   

It would be a lie to suggest that the moral failures that followed in the wake of 9/11 were simply the result of emotional energy needing an outlet for action.  Our march to war was crafted of carefully manipulated truths and well-told lies. 

We live still in the morass of that moral failure.  Drones bomb children whose beautiful smiles we never see.  In Guantanamo, our prisoners hunger strike, prevented from death by force-feeding.  These facts are merely known, no lurid images replay to immerse us in their dark truth.

Our generation faces the Boston bombing without the shock of innocence.  We know where this can go.  Yes, there are bad people in the world and they can do horrible things.  But our moral measure is not the selfless courage of first responders charging up the stairs or into shrapnel.  As believers and citizens, we face a question that can only be answered away from emergency’s chaos, and--even more--away from its pseudo continuation in the jolty jazzing media stream. 

Knowing the terrorist’s narrative is on offer, we might pause from the media stream that extends it to us and turn with urgency to that other narrative that knows human evil, nails, innocent blood, and indeed, the very same demon dare, but answered these with love.  That is, of course, not a policy.  But unless we begin there, there is no reason to hope we will fare any better facing terrorism’s demon dare than we did 12 years ago.

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David Smith
4 years 7 months ago
Jonesing on the story, we manically refresh our browsers like lab rats, seeking any clue about who did this and why.
Really, Vincent, I doubt most of us do that. Hopefully, most of us understand that there's violence throughout the world in a great many more places than Boston, and in much higher numbers. I think citizens of the West are at least beginning to understand how little good their news media do them, and how unreliable they are. As the Pope knows well, there's plenty of violence in big cities, everywhere, all the time. Probably, there's a greater likelihood of violence there, since crowded conditions increase emotional pressure and emotional pressure increases the likelihood of violence, at the same time that the crowding increases the number of targets. The only thing unusual about Boston is that there were a lot of first-world television cameras there. Let's pray that human beings everywhere learn to tame the more destructive parts of their minds before it's too late for all of us.
Christopher Rushlau
4 years 7 months ago
It would be a lie to suggest that the moral failures that followed in the wake of 9/11 were simply the result of emotional energy needing an outlet for action. Our march to war was crafted of carefully manipulated truths and well-told lies. So you say, but are you saying you did not participate in that craftsmanship? Who did, then? Anybody you know? I see an ad for "fifteen million starving Haitians" in the middle of your story. Am I right to say that the US and France barred the popular candidate from the past election so that this pop-singer was the default candidate? And the popular candidate was either Fr. Aristide, or his successor? Jesus is the kind of guy who notices things when he stumbles over them.
Robert and Susan Bulger
4 years 7 months ago
I'm glad your first commenter does not fit the mold of "manically refreshing our browsers . . ." I almost fit that mold; I was captivated by the Boston Marathon internet news. I returned to it several times a day, and the driving attraction was the need to learn as soon as possible that a credible arrest was made. Absolutely, 'we must pay attention to what this ritual of media immersion does to us.' I am a simple person (Bob) easily inflamed by the last intelligent statement I hear. Still, your advice is good for me, and I think even more important for many practicing Catholics and other Christians around me, people that I unkindly, hopefully inaccurately, see as very out of touch with St. Francis' Blessed Poor, whether in this country or abroad, unless perhaps the poor in question sleep within a 40 mile radius of our warm homes. May I share your last two paragraphs with friends and family as long as I give you and "America" credit? I'll still value this opinion piece if the answer is no. At first I thought I'd like to use them in a witness talk, but it's not the correct format. God willing (and me not too obstinate) that talk will be about living as God intends, perhaps the attitude of grattitude, and never bring to mind sorrowful, frightening images of eight year old boys and city trash cans. On the other hand, "and turn with urgency to that other narrative that knows human evil, nails, innocent blood, and indeed, the very same demon dare, but answered these with love.", if this isn't a thought for every essay on the joys of Christian discipleship, it's still a wonderful thought for every day. Thanks.
Gabriel Marcella
4 years 7 months ago
"Our march to war was crafted of carefully manipulated truths and well-told lies." Vince, History will probably radically modify this assessment. It might be something along these lines: 1. There was a colossal failure by the institutions of our democracy to question and hold our leaders accountable, especially the news media and Congress, for the decision to go war. When and why did "regime change" become an acceptable part of the American lexicon? 2. The neo-conservatives believed the worst about Saddam and his "nukes." He fooled enough people into thinking that he had them. The neo-cons wanted to believe the worst about his capabilities and intentions. 3. The policy apparatus in Washington on the executive side was seized by a narrow coterie of ideologues who believed that military power could remake Iraq and make democracy radiate into the Middle East, irrespective of the political culture of region and our own incapacity in the form of will, time, resources, and know how to bring this about. 4. There were colossal miscalculations about the nature of the military, economic, and political tasks that the US would face in rebuilding Iraq. Conclusion: our march to war was crafted by bad strategic thinking, erroneous assumptions, bad intelligence, and complacent institutions.

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