Wednesday, April 17, 2013


I have been struggling with what to say about the Boston Marathon Bombings for the last couple days.  For most Americans the bombings came on "Tax Day," though, if you're a Bostonian you might have thought of Monday as "Patriot's Day," the annual observation of the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

But I am not a Bostonian; I live in the New River Valley and for me April 15th will forever be "the day before the anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings."  When those shootings happened in 2007 I was writing for Newsvine and I provided a moment by moment account of what we were learning as we learned it: I camped onto every local news station in the area; listened to police scanner feeds; called friends who were on campus; checked little known web-cameras; and basically did everything within my power (from within my locked-down office building) to work out, for people scattered all over the country, many of whom were trying to figure out if their sons and daughters were alive, what was going on.

I did my best to verify things before posting them but even as close to the events as I was the media echo chamber distorted a lot of what I was hearing and I was, eventually, forced to retract several things I'd previously asserted as true.

That was in 2007; things move much faster now.

When events like the Boston Marathon Bombing happen they, like the explosives planted near the finish line, suck all of the oxygen out of the proverbial room.  What was once a media environment rife with names, numbers, figures, and data becomes a howling vacuum of questions and uncertainty.  Nature abhors a vacuum and the talking heads that stare into a camera lens all day long are all too eager to fill it.

Speculation becomes theory, theory becomes opinion, opinion becomes analysis, analysis becomes fact and soon we've spun off into an entirely fictional world of manufactured information which has nothing whatsoever to do with reality.

As events move onward, this only gets worse.

Today, two days after the bombing, we still don't know who perpetrated it or why or if they acted alone or as part of a group,  Yesterday a Saudi man was in custody and media reported that he was "a person of interest" with hits at "suspect" status right up until he was eventually released.  Today rumors circulate of arrests, but they're all officially denied.

Everyone wants to break the next big news in this story; there is a tremendous sense that we are about to have a profound national conversation about something but no one is altogether sure what about.

We do know some things but those things are very few and as important and vital as they might seem right now, they might ultimately turn out to be nothing more than noise in a larger data stream.

  • We know that the bomber attacked on Tax Day which is also Patriot's Day
  • We know that the bomber attacked a marathon.
  • We know that the bomber attacked Boston, a city with symbolic significance in - among other things - Revolutionary War History, Taxation, Catholicism, and Education.
  • We know that the bomber used a bomb design previously published in Al Qaeda literature
  • We know that the bomber sought to maximize injuries and fatalities by using shrapnel 

This is all we know, really, about the identity and motivation of the bomber.  It's possible that every one of these is a vital clue; it's also possible that none of them are.  The data set is too small and we cannot yet distinguish signal from noise - but the 24 hour news stations have air-time to fill and they can't very well talk about Jessica Simpson's son or Jennifer Aniston's wedding at a time like this.

So round and round we go.

The information we have fits the profile of a domestic right-wing terrorist reasonably well - not perfectly, but reasonably well.  It also fits the profile of an Al Qaeda affiliated Islamist extremist reasonably well - again, not perfectly, but reasonably well.  It fits another handful of various terror profiles to boot, and again, there is simply no way to know, at this point, much of anything about the bomber.

And so, in a increasingly connected world where minutes seem like hours and days like lifetimes, we wait... and speculate.

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