Words Matter: How to Think About Boston

Most discussions about yesterday’s tragedy are subtly designed to make you more fearful. You should not be, and you should do your best to calm the people around you. What follows is an attempt to make this more simple.

Words matter. How you think and communicate about the horrible events in Boston yesterday will have a huge impact on your personal emotional well-being, and on those around you.

I spent a lot of time yesterday tweeting to high-profile people in my Twitter stream asking them not to use certain words in their tweets in the immediate aftermath of the explosions. It’s not that they were incorrect; it’s that there are nuances and common (usually incorrect) interpretations of these words that can inflame panicked reactions.

For example, take the word “terrorism.” There is an ongoing debate as to whether a “terrorist” act requires a political or ideological motivation. Under normal circumstances, this is an issue of semantics; what happened yesterday is scary as hell, and the word we choose to use simply doesn’t matter. But yesterday, it very much did.

Compare the words used and the immediate reactions to our two most recent high-profile tragedies. The word “terrorist” was instantly applied to Boston. But in Sandy Hook, the word was “shooting.” Boston caused the nation to fear additional attacks around the country. Sandy Hook was a tragedy that, for most of us, was emotionally impacting but did not make us concerned that we were in immediate danger ourselves. The words we use have a lot to do with these separate reactions.

I’m not saying that it was inappropriate for cities like New York and Washington to step up their security last night; in fact, that was entirely prudent. My concern is with mass panics, which can cause deaths and injuries in areas where there is no overt threat. If the entire tourist population of New York or Washington suddenly decides to get the hell out of town—assuming here that the locals will be less panicky, although that’s not always the case—that’s an environment where bad things can happen on crowded subway platforms. In cities where a large subsut of the population is carrying a concealed weapon, hypervigilance can also lead to tragedies. It’s vitally important to keep people calm.

Someday, we may very well face a situation when people are in immediate physical danger. We will want these people to have the same reaction people had in Boston, London, and New York City during their tragedies, an immediate sense of “how can I help” instead of “get the hell out of my way, I’m looking out for myself.” For everywhere but Boston yesterday, our immediate reactions will create the psychological precedent that will dictate how we will react if we are in harm’s way in the future.

Terrorism and Hypercompetence

Likewise, there is a tendency to view terrorists as far more dangerous and competent than they actually are. We are generally, and unconsciously, trained to think of criminals as idiots; this is because many criminals are idiots. Mentally unbalanced criminals can get away with appalling crimes because it’s simply not difficult to shoot civilians with military-grade weapons; even then, we routinely catch criminals planning shootings because they make so many mistakes in the days leading up to the act. (I nearly wrote “attack,” which is yet another word that should be avoided.)

Immediately after word of the explosions hit the news and Twitter yesterday, pundits on the cable news networks were saying that “this was planned to maximize media coverage.” This buys into the worst aspect of the “war on terror” and the public perception of terrorism: turning anyone who plans terrorist acts into a member of a single, monolithic organization that has resources, planning capability, and a greater ability to harm us. This organization does not exist; even two groups who both call themselves al-Qaeda may not be able to use each other’s knowledge and resources.

In fact, any violent act in a major city where people are congregating will automatically maximize media coverage. Choose any day in Times Square or Disney World; any heavy travel period at a train station, airport, or bus depot; any parade or public event. News cameras are never more than a few miles away, and we all have videocameras in our pockets. Go where the people are, and you get media saturation as part of the deal.

Again, I’m not minimizing how scary it is to set off a bomb in the center of an American city. I am, however, suggesting that you don’t need to be a criminal mastermind to become a big story.

What Do We Know

My assessment of who did this follows. I have no idea why; in fact, I consider “why” to be completely irrelevant. These people are criminals, not terrorists. On Sunday, they had the right to have their views aired in public discourse and debate. Today, their political and ideological views are irrelevant and not worthy of consideration; their actions have removed them from membership of a civilization where they are worthy of being treated as intellectual equals. (However, they are still human, and as such, should be given the protections of our criminal system; this is not because they deserve such treatment, but because we are the kind of people who deserve to think of ourselves as decent.)

Note: what follows is, by necessity, bloodless and may sound very callous. That’s not my intent, but it’s important to use unemotional thinking when evaluating the capabilities of criminal violence.

According to news reports yesterday, the bombs went off at times when fewer people were nearby; an explosion at alternate times of the day would have increased casualties. This implies to me that the criminals were restrained either in when they could place the bombs, or in the technology they could use to time the explosions. Both indicate criminals who do not have access to either large groups of people to organize the event, and do not have access to better materials. A $10 watch is an excellent timer, with the right expertise; I doubt they had it.

The bombs that exploded were packed with nails and ball bearings; this is particularly frightening because it’s the first time such a device has been used on US soil. It does not mean that the criminals are related to Afghanistan or Iraq, where such devices are common. We are not living in the post-9/11 world; such devices have been around for centuries. But we are living in the post-Internet world, where information on how to build bombs like this is easy to find. (This is not a bad thing. This trains far more medical personnel to respond to violent actions than it trains potential criminals to build them.)

Two bombs exploded, and two unexploded bombs were found. Many people choose to think this is scarier because it implies more evil intent; personally, I think “evil intent” is maximized with the first bomb, and anything else they attempted to do can’t make it worse. What this does mean, however, is that the planners probably couldn’t exceed a 50% success rate in building the devices. It’s a damned shame that their success rate wasn’t 0%—it’s not like you can test your abilities by blowing up a bomb in advance to see if you got it right—but again, 50% means less than “competent.”

This is a scary time. Which means that we should all be aware that being scared leads to poor decisions. Unless new information changes my assessment, none of us, including Bostonians, are in any more danger today than we were on Sunday. Be alert and be careful, but above all, be wise.

3 thoughts on “Words Matter: How to Think About Boston

  1. Jeff – the above contains several blatant inaccuracies:

    Boston caused the nation to fear additional attacks around the country. Sandy Hook was a tragedy that, for most of us, was emotionally impacting but did not make us concerned that we were in immediate danger ourselves

    Incorrect. Every school in America went on heightened alert immediately after the Sandy Hook shooting. Some schools posted armed guards the very next day. My hometown of Marlboro, NJ posted police officers at each school (who are still there today). And that’s without mentioning the ongoing response from the federal government (up to and including the President) about changing the gun laws in the country. Sandy Hook changed a lot of things about America.

    My concern is with mass panics, which can cause deaths and injuries in areas where there is no overt threat. If the entire tourist population of New York or Washington suddenly decides to get the hell out of town—assuming here that the locals will be less panicky, although that’s not always the case—that’s an environment where bad things can happen on crowded subway platforms

    There were no such mass panics. No reported deaths or injuries in the major cities, and no reports (that I’m aware of) of crimes or panic on subway platforms or the like. The words the media chose to use did not seem to impact people in other cities in the way you describe, except possibly to heighten the various showings of support that followed (and continue to follow).

    According to news reports yesterday, the bombs went off at times when fewer people were nearby; an explosion at alternate times of the day would have increased casualties. This implies to me that the criminals were restrained either in when they could place the bombs, or in the technology they could use to time the explosions. Both indicate criminals who do not have access to either large groups of people to organize the event, and do not have access to better materials

    Incorrect. The 1993 World Trade Center bombings occurred at 12:30pm, when many people were at lunch. An hour earlier or later, and many more people could have been harmed. In 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center occurred before 9AM, and on a day where many people came late to work because of a mayoral primary election. The WTC typically had ~100,000 people in it during a normal business day (double the ~50,000 that worked there), but at the time of the attacks, estimates have been placed at ~20,000 people in the building.

    The purpose of terrorism is terror, not death. You don’t have to kill the maximum number of people to scare everyone else. In fact, the idea that the bombs went off when fewer people were around make it more likely, in my opinion, that this was intended to cause terror rather than death.

    The bombs that exploded were packed with nails and ball bearings; this is particularly frightening because it’s the first time such a device has been used on US soil

    Also incorrect. In 1996, a bomb filled with nails and ball bearings exploded in the Olympic Village in Atlanta, GA – another major sporting event. If it weren’t for the time between the two events and the fact that the perpetrator of the first has admitted his crime and is in custody, one might reasonably suggest they were related. I’m still not sure this wasn’t a copycat of that crime (although we may never know).

    Unless new information changes my assessment, none of us, including Bostonians, are in any more danger today than we were on Sunday. Be alert and be careful, but above all, be wise.

    Here, we agree. Although, some may be more AFRAID than they were on Sunday – more reason to refer to this as terrorism rather than crime (regardless of who did it).

  2. @Kathy: I stopped updating the post yesterday night, so I’ll leave the text stet as it was the latest information I had. If my information at the time was bad, then I’m reinforcing my own point about spreading rumors (although nothing I wrote was posted without at least two sources).

    @Brian: will reply to yours ASAP, it’s more time than I have available tonight.

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