Keep Calm and Shut the Bleep Up

Dear Americans, stop patting yourselves on the back for 'not letting the terrorists win.'


Could we all stop yapping about the Boston bombing for a while?

Could we all stop yapping about the Boston bombing for a while?

As I write, we continue to drown in a sea of tweets, Reddit posts, sanctimonious Facebook updates, and "breaking" news that breaks down completely a few milliseconds later. It was al Qaeda! It was a homegrown Islamic terrorist! It was a white supremacist! It was — or it wasn’t — connected to the Mississippi ricin guy! It was — or it wasn’t — connected to Wednesday night’s powerful explosions near Waco, Texas! It was the guy in the blue robe! It was the North Koreans! It was God, punishing America for gay marriage!

At Foreign Policy, we get all the scoops, so I’ll let you in on some secret inside information. It’s hot stuff — the kind of information CNN and Fox don’t want you to have. Here it is:

Someone planted two homemade bombs near the Boston Marathon’s finish line. Three people are dead, and many more are injured, some gravely. The police and the FBI are working hard to figure out who did it, but they don’t know for sure yet.

And there you have it. That’s all I know, that’s all the media know, that’s all the "security experts" on TV know, and that’s all anyone knows, unless they happen to be among a small number of senior law enforcement officials, or unless they happen to be the bomber(s). Currently, we know just as much (or just as little) about the explosions in Texas.

And in light of our collective ignorance and lack of anything solid to report, here’s my plea, to the various communities and individuals out there:

Police, FBI: Keep at it. Thanks.

First responders and medical personnel: Ditto.

Reporters and bloggers: Keep digging. When you know something for a fact, by all means, tweet or post a story. Otherwise, please shut up. You’re just making us crazy and spreading half-truths and misinformation.

This means you too, Associated Press.

Friends and families of those killed or injured: Take care of yourselves and each other. Millions of thoughts and prayers are going your way from all around the world. Millions of people are sorry for your pain and loss.

Millions more would love to appropriate your pain and loss, out of ideology, political ambition, or simple narcissism. Ignore them. In fact, ignore all of us. You have far more important things to do than listen to any of the rest of us.

People who witnessed the explosions or saw the carnage: Seeing terrible things can leave real psychic scars. Talk to someone, if you need to.

And as for the rest of us?

Stop. Just stop.

You don’t need to keep changing your Facebook status to let us all know that you’re still extremely shocked and sad about the Boston bombing. Let’s just stipulate that everyone is shocked and sad, except the perpetrators and some other scattered sociopaths.

You also don’t need to see a trauma counselor unless you have serious preexisting problems. These tragedies aren’t yours. Don’t devalue the grief and trauma of people who actually have something to be distressed about by developing a case of self-indulgent vicarious trauma.

It’s one thing for President Obama to say, as he did Thursday afternoon, "Every one of us has been touched by this attack" and "Boston, you’re my home." He’s the president, after all — he’s supposed to feel every American’s pain. But, when the rest of us wear it, the sentiment is cloying at best, and it’s often just plain self-indulgent.   

"Convincing ourselves that we’ve been vicariously traumatized by the pain of strangers has become a cherished national pastime," I wrote in a 2007 column for the Los Angeles Times. That column was motivated by the response to the Virginia Tech shootings, but it could apply equally to the Newtown shooting or the Boston Marathon bombing or the Waco disaster. Here’s what I wrote then:

Five days after the Virginia Tech massacre, the friends and families of the victims are grieving — and despite the relentless glare of the media spotlight, their pain is still private. It belongs to them, not to the rest of us.

But you sure wouldn’t know it from the way we talk about the tragedy. In modern America, there’s always plenty of trauma to go around….Did you feel sad when you heard the news? Did you ponder, however fleetingly, the mystery of mortality? If so, don’t just go on with your ordinary life as if nothing has happened to disrupt it (even though nothing has happened to disrupt it). Honor your grief! Attend a candlelight vigil, post a poignant message on one of MySpace’s Virginia Tech memorial pages and please, seek trauma counseling as soon as possible….

[But] count me out. There’s something fraudulent about this eagerness to latch onto the grief of others and embrace the idea that we, too, have been victimized…. Empathy is good, but feeling shocked and saddened by the shootings doesn’t make us traumatized or special — these feelings make us normal. Our self-indulgent conviction that we have all been traumatized also operates, ironically, to shut down empathy for other, less media-genic victims….Our collective insistence that we all share in the Virginia Tech trauma is a form of anti-politics, one that blinds us to the distinctions between different kinds and degrees of suffering.

So please, please, don’t tell us that Boston has become just like Afghanistan, or that you now understand what it must be like to live in Iraq. It’s not, and you don’t. (I don’t either, and I’m thankful for that.) Thousands of American servicemembers have been injured or killed in bomb blasts over the last decade, as have thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians. In Iraq on Monday, more than 50 people died in a bomb blast, and another attack killed at least 15 on Thursday. In Afghanis
tan, bomb blasts killed at least eight on Monday, and insurgent attacks and more bombs killed several dozen others over the next few days.

We Americans have never had to live with the continual insecurity and carnage that is the daily lot for millions around the world, and thank God for that. That doesn’t mean we need to wear sackcloth and ashes every day to commemorate the suffering of strangers around the world, but it wouldn’t hurt for us to stop acting like a bombing that killed three people has magically transformed all Americans into martyrs and heroes.

So please don’t pat yourself on the back for courageously going on with your regular business this week just to "show the terrorists" that they can’t intimidate you. Unless you’re President Obama or one of a small number of people against whom there are repeated, credible threats, "the terrorists" aren’t that interested in you, personally. Carry on. Odds are, you’ll be just fine. (Unless you’re hit by lightning, which is somewhat more likely than becoming a victim of a terrorist attack.)

You also don’t need to assert proudly that Boston will get through this. Of course it will. The city of Boston’s been around for nearly 400 years, and it has survived smallpox epidemics, bread riots, the Revolutionary War, draft riots, labor riots, race riots, and decades of sky-high homicide rates. Three dead in a terrorist attack is devastating for the families and friends of the victims, but it is not going to destroy Boston.

You don’t need to freak out about cosmic new threats to U.S. national security, either. The Boston Marathon bombing was tragic and criminal whether it was carried out by a foreign terrorist group or a home-grown nutcase. But keep it in perspective: Ordinary criminal homicide claims more than 5,000 times as many American lives each year than this attack. Ordinary criminal homicide has claimed far more lives than international terrorism every single year in recorded history, and car accidents kill twice as many Americans as homicide. And as I noted above, with the exception of 2011, lightning strikes have claimed more American lives each year in the past decade than terrorist attacks. An attack that kills three people is criminal and sad, but it does not represent an existential danger to the United States.

This means you don’t need to urge President Obama to go find a foreign country to attack in response. Maybe the Boston bomber(s) were inspired by Inspire, al Qaeda’s online magazine, which contains helpful articles such as "How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom." Maybe they were inspired by decades-old anarchist literature, also readily available on the web, or by any of a thousand other sites that offer how-to advice to aspiring mass murderers of all nationalities and political stripes. Either way, invading another country — or stepping up drone strikes on suspected militants in far-off lands –isn’t likely to solve the problem that currently faces us, which is that an enterprising sociopath of any race, religion, nationality, or creed can easily obtain weapons, materiel, and just enough expertise to do some serious harm.

You also don’t need to beg the government to install more security cameras. Most commercial enterprises already make use of security cameras, and most of your fellow citizens already carry their own portable security cameras these days — a.k.a. cellphones. Look how easily Reddit’s Internet sleuths have zeroed in on particular faces in the Boston crowd, using multiple photos provided mainly by marathon watchers. (That’s for better or for worse — the crowd-sourcing process is also misidentifying as "suspicious" many perfectly innocent people.)

At the end of the day, there just isn’t much most ordinary people should do in immediate response to events such as the Boston bombings. We can take common sense security measures, but we can’t eliminate all terrorism any more than we can eliminate all crime or prevent all accidental deaths. We live in an imperfect world. The best we can do is cultivate resilience and learn how to intelligently manage risk.

Second best: Let’s quit whining and quit yapping. A small number of Americans have something terrible to grieve about as a result of Monday’s bombing. The rest of us should show our respect by not trying to horn in on their grief — and by shutting up until we actually have some information worth sharing.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Twitter: @brooks_rosa

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