Shortly after yesterday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon, my Twitter feed was thick with Bostonians seeking and sharing information: Copley station was closed, cell lines jammed, marathoners meeting on the Common. People wanted to know where it was safe to go, how to get home, how to find each other.
I live in Providence, but because I spent the last two years as a staff editor at the recently shuttered Boston Phoenix, I knew the best thing I could do was get my Boston followers the information they needed to get off the streets, where police warned there could be unexploded devices anywhere. All day I sat in a coffee shop an hour south of Back Bay train station, my commuter rail stop. I would have been at work, would have been one of the frantic folks trying to make it home. That I wasn’t was dumb luck.
I remembered how I felt when I was at Emerson College on September 11, 2001. This was before Twitter. A professor interrupted my 9 am class to tell us what happened. In the Public Garden near the spot where marathoners and spectators now met family members, I’d stood outside my evacuated classroom, scanning the sky. Rumors abound, but all we knew for sure was that the planes that hit New York left Logan, and the sense was Boston might be next.
As I Tweeted and ReTweeted information yesterday—tip lines, which restaurants were serving free food, road closures—I thought about the kid I was back then, the long ride home on the red line, the absolute unknown, the free fall feel of it.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but notice the editorializing and conspiracy theories clogging up my feed—almost all from people outside of New England. I disregarded them mostly, except for Tweeting the occasional plea to remember that folks were still navigating blood-soaked streets, or being operated on, or trying to find a place to sleep. I know we all handle trauma differently, and that even those far away are affected by the very real feeling of terror. But I was particularly disturbed by the circulation of a Daily Mail article about a US drone strike that killed an Afghan wedding party. “Three here, 30 there, which is bigger news?” was a pretty typical response. A horrible and disturbing tragedy, but not—as many were led to believe/led others to believe—an event that happened yesterday. For reasons that I can’t fully grasp, someone had doctored the 2002 article in Photoshop with yesterday’s date.
There’s so much potential in social media at moments like this. All day people behaved in ways that affirmed our connection to each other. Boston folks created the hashtag #BostonHelps to crowdsource housing and food information. Many local reporters in the region where very careful about what they reported, understanding that the information was vital to the many people still on the street. I watched friend after friend check in on Facebook, especially grateful to see the avatars of folks who worked downtown or who had run the marathon in years past. Citizens spread and respread information at the behest of the BPD, including important directives about sweeps and evacuations.
The first step in containing the potential for trauma is safety. The second is to welcome the injured and fearful, the grief-stricken and the shocked back into the fold. This is animal logic—trauma research has found that prey animals, upon escape, need to rejoin the group and discharge their nervous energy, the stress hormones that kept them alive.
I understand that in the aftermath of tragedy, bystanders feel helpless. I felt helpless. I feel helpless. Today I have to face my students at a college just south of Boston. Many of them are from the area, and I have no idea how they’ve been affected.
I know that we are angry and bewildered and saddened as a country, and though it’s tempting to be cerebral and to stump our agendas as a way to regain a sense of control, I know that we are capable of more than that. I saw it, as you did yesterday, in the people who brought food and blankets into the street, the folks who donated blood, the first responders who ran into the horror.
We are not helpless. They made Boston safe. And you, every one of you, can welcome the city back into the fold.
Photograph by Essdras M Suarez.