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The Boston “We” Party

April 16, 2013

The tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon yesterday was undoubtedly surreal to anyone who followed the events as they unfolded, myself included. For the first time that I can recall since September of 2001, time seemed to slow down and attention seemed dragged to the center of a swirling vortex of sorrow, fear, and anxiety in Northeastern America.

The human reaction to the Boston bombing had many echoes of 9/11. Some Islamophobes immediately suspected and accused Muslim religious extremists; others spouted unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that the federal government was behind the bombings; and still others leapt to score cheap political points. People fixated on the negative, to be sure: 3 dead and over 120 injured. Fears and suspicions of broader terroristic plots have been raised and doubted.

But, as with 9/11, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of solidarity. People immediately focused on treating and organizing the wounded and bewildered–what a weirdly ironic blessing and/or oversight of the bomber(s) that the bombs went off in a location where hundreds of medical personnel and ambulances already were waiting to treat potential injuries incurred at the marathon!–and police already were onsite to cordon off the area and preserve the scene for evidence gathering.

And again, like 9/11, people from across the country and across the world came together to show support. Reddit, my favorite site on the internet, discharged its self-appointed duties with distinguishable honor. Redditors compiled, verified, and posted in real-time eight pages of updates, a summary of events, collected offers from Bostonians offering stranded marathoners ground transportation, airline flights, places to stay for the night, and even free pizza.

As Patton Oswalt, a prolific purveyor of perspective, wrote in an online piece, the response of almost literally everyone else was to help and heal, not to harm.

But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me). This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.

But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

The immediate legacy of 9/11 was to create a broad basis of support for a president that was already divisive; now we are in dramatically overpolarized political climate in dire need of some kind of common ground. Hopefully, one legacy of this atrocity will be a move back toward some sort of consensus that we are all Americans in it for the common good regardless of political party.

Unfortunately, there likely will be other sorts of echoes of 9/11 in the form of crass attempts at commercializing a tragedy. Your guess is as good as mine as to what color the donation ribbon/wristband/marathon bib will be. Where Boston will hopefully begin to really diverge from 9/11 is how America reacts to these acts of terrorism.

Aside from the bombings themselves, perhaps the biggest story that is apparent from the survey of coverage of the Boston bombing is the absolutely revolutionized technological landscape that now surrounds us as opposed to 11.5 years ago. The state investigation (as opposed to public, a significant difference in this case) may have simply proceeded with the more conventional 9/11-era tools such as bomb fragment analysis, call tracing, purchase tracking, etc. But what everyone already knows is that investigators will heavily rely on crowdsourced public surveillance. Surveillance cameras are distributed and located in every pocket and on every corner, making the public a far more efficient form of surveillance than any of the state’s tools of surveillance.

There are limits to the crowdsourcing. The data used in the investigation will be crowdsourced. The investigation will not be. A crowdsourced investigation runs a high risk of becoming a witchhunt, as we saw in the Newton shooting spree.

Hopefully, the vast comparative efficiency of crowdsourcing surveillance and intelligence to the clunky state methods of intelligence-gathering will prove itself as a source of American resilience in the aftermath of this tragedy. Even more hopefully, Boston will prove that the authorities can ask for information rather than demanding or simply taking the photos off of phones “for national security reasons.” And who knows, maybe this method of law enforcement will make Americans think twice about the decade of fruitless torture we have implicitly authorized through inaction.

This was a lesson we could have learned from 9/11 itself. After all, Flight 93 (the one headed for the Capitol) wasn’t brought down by the TSA or even the Air Force; it was brought down by American citizens on the plane who had unfettered access to crowd-sourced intel (in that case, cell phone calls to/from loved ones who had seen what happened to the World Trade Center). Of course, crowd-sourcing intel will undoubtedly lead to a lot of false positives, and it already has, but which is worse: some racist paranoids calling out turban wearers (which they already do), or giving the national security leviathan the power to control for everything all the way down to pressure cookers?

Although, if 9/11 is our historical guide, I’ll give you one guess as to the direction that our public approach to civil liberties will take.

“They can give me a cavity search right now and I’d be perfectly happy,” said Daniel Wood, a video producer from New York City who was waiting for a train.

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