Clarity, and what we know so far.

The bombing today in Boston has rightfully shook many Americans. Being human as we are, when we get shook we often shut down our critical thinking and rely more heavily on our emotions and instincts. So it is no surprise that in this situation too tensions have flared and speculation has gotten a bit rampant.

So lets step back and see what we know at this point while we also take a look at the language being used to describe it.

The facts: 2 bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon today. A White House official deemed it an “act of terror” yet urged caution stating “We don’t yet know who carried out this attack, and a thorough investigation will have to determine whether it was planned and carried out by a terrorist group, foreign or domestic.” 3 have died, including one 8 year old boy and 144 have so far been treated for wounds ranging from cuts and ear drum damage to amputations. The Boston Police, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), and the FBI Joint Terrorist Task Force are all working on the case, as well as many other state and Federal officials. As of this writing the FBI has officially taken the lead. Earlier today it was reported that 5 more “suspect devices” had been found. Now however, it has been concluded that they were not bombs. The Boston Globe also reported an explosion at the JFK Library:

They then later retracted:

There was for a while a young Saudi man being reported as a “suspect” and held in a hospital. It was later clarified that as opposed to the term “suspect” the man in question was only a “Person of Interest”.

This man has been subsequently found to have a clear background. The police clarified the situation by stating that no one was in fact being labeled a “suspect” and that no one was “in custody”, only that “Persons of Interest” were being “held for questioning”. Currently “investigators have been warned to look for a ‘darker skinned or black male’ with a possible foreign accent” in connection to the bombings. “The man was seen with a black backpack and sweatshirt and was trying to get into a restricted area about five minutes before the first explosion”.

And that is, as they say, the jist. So, what I’d like to look at are some complaints being made about how the reporting of this tragedy has gone on.

ON TERRORISM.

James Fallows has chided Bloomberg TV for bringing in terrorism experts to discuss the situation; urging them to “wait”. The White House has called this an act of terror. Beyond that, there is nothing to wait on once it has been confirmed that two bombs filled with ball bearings are set off in sequence in a highly populated civilian area. If that isn’t terrorism then the word has no meaning. I appreciate Mr. Fallows journalistic instincts to hesitancy. If the Iraq War taught one thing it should be to not take the gov’t line on anything without corroboration. However, in this specific case, we aren’t discussing WMD’s no one has seen. We’re talking about a crime in which eye witness footage and documentation is thru the roof. It’s terrorism, whether we know who and wherefore, because the word is in reference to an act, not a motive, or skin color, or ideology.

ON SPECULATION.

We humans have a habit of jumping to our favored conclusions when facts arise that could fit our model of the world. Upon hearing that it was “Patriots Day” Esquire’s Charles Pierce stated that due to this it reminded him of Timothy McVeigh. Where as Pamela Geller asks if her readers think the work was done by Jihadists by linking to this speculative tripe. And Salon decides it’s a perfect time to rip the right wing fringe lunatics, because, well, it’s Salon. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that a bunch of opinion columnists skip the facts and go right to their preferred hobby horse.

But I would like to add one little caveat: Facts themselves don’t fuel conspiracies, people do. If a suspect is detained or more to the point, a person is questioned, stating that this person is of this complexion, build, height, and/or nationality is not an incitement to racial hatred. It is perfectly common when it comes to identifying suspects in everyday police proceedings to state “Black Male” “Caucasian Female” and so on. So whether one is a mid 40’s Caucasian Male, or an early twenties Samoan woman, racism is only going to result from such descriptions if there is an individual disposed to be racist towards that group. Thus, racism is perpetrated by the racist, not the facts.

A question arises: what would it take for me to believe that certain facts were being included unnecessarily in order to incite a negative view of the suspect?  Statements like “dirty” or “fat” would perk my ears, instantly. Now we’re outside of neutral descriptors and we’ve moved into value-laden judgements. Employ one of those and you’ve given up the game, so to speak. So too does one give up the game by stating that, based upon the neutral description of anyone, that they’ve identified motive and affiliation. A Middle Easterner: Al Qaeda, a Southern white male: Militia Extremist, a coastal white male: Leftist Anarchist, and so on and so forth. These all commit the same error to mistake description for implication. Many naturally jump from “Saudi” to “Al Qaeda” even though if we grant about 50’000 Al Qaeda members worldwide (being VERY generous) that’s still only about .1 percent of the Saudi population alone. So to make that jump is to be totally unaware of the facts. Unsurprisingly, this jump can be made from both the left and the right. One is to state that if Saudi then Al Qaeda (right). Another is to state that if reported Saudi then implied Al Qaeda (Left). One speaks to prejudice on the right, the other assumes a pandering to that prejudice. So, in a rare show of bi-partisanship, both the left and the right get to get something wrong for the same reason. Even a Saudi can be a crazed lone bomber and he’s none of the above until proven guilty.

IN CLOSING.

We don’t know a great deal, but as I clarified above (and forgive the double negative), we don’t know nothing. Information is coming quick at this stage and thus it should be our duty as rational individuals to simply take in the facts and leave the speculating to those who don’t actually do any journalism. Yet, the speed of information doesn’t grant an excuse to follow our own preferred narratives. Mistakes will be made in the reporting, naturally, but the moment we begin to imbue those mistakes with intent against our preferred narrative, or worse, when correct reports are rejected due to our preferred narrative, then we have given up the mantle of neutrality. We’re playing for a team at that point, and to do so is to admit that those dead and the facts of their deaths, are secondary.

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