By Sean Callaghan
Anger. It has a mesmerizing effect. My wife and I fought in the early years of our marriage. We’re both stubborn people, and we were both committed to each other, which meant we were willing to fight because we knew we’d be together for the rest of our lives. During these fights we were both amazed at what the anger did to us. When anger took over, the only thing we could see were our partner’s flaws. If we were fighting about chores, we would only remember the times we were left alone to clean up a mess. If we fought about money, we would conveniently forget all the contributions the other had made towards our financial well-being. We discovered anger is selective, and narrow-minded. It only allows us to see what it needs to see to keep itself stoked and burning. It was greedy that way.
The media waves have been seething with anger this past week. Ever since those two tragic bombs went off at the Boston Marathon on April 15th, the World Wide Web has exploded in fury over the unfairness of the attacks, and the injustice of targeting innocent by-standers at a sporting event. I too felt the rage. For a brief moment, that rage was necessary. It spoke our sympathy to those who were most deeply affected by the tragedy. It bonded us into a temporary unity of outrage at violence and those who act on its behalf. That rage had its moment, but now, it is time for it to pass, and let cooler heads prevail. Because, if given time, that anger will begin to reshape the event coding everything and everyone with its narrow-minded, and selective inclinations.
We can already see the traces of this beginning to spread. CBC News posted a news story two days ago concerning vigilante web-surfers engaged in their own private witch-hunts for those responsible for the bombings. The New York Post published an unsubstantiated front-page article pointing the finger at two “bag men” it believed to be responsible for the bombings. Both men were innocent. Meanwhile, more recently all media outlets are obsessed with the chase for the Tsarnaev boys, the two brothers that have risen to the top of the FBI’s suspect list in the bombings. We are given what seems to be irrefutable evidence of their guilt: video tape of the two men walking through a crowd with what look like bags that match the description of the bags used in the explosions. An uncle has come out chastising them. Their parents call for them to turn themselves in to authorities. We now learn one of them has been shot dead in a shootout with police. All for the better, because they must be guilty. They are terrorists. The newspapers tell us so.
And so the hunt for answers begins. Why did they do it? Where did they come from? The thing is there is no certainty in this story or any story that tries to narrate what happened so soon after the fact. There will likely never be an easy answer to these questions. Why does this seem to be so difficult for the media to understand? We are all still reeling from disorientation. Our emotions are all still raw. A mountain of information has yet to be processed. So we are in no position to pass judgment on what happened or why. Meanwhile, there is a process whereby the guilt or innocence of the two suspects will be measured, and as flawed and plodding as this system may be, it is the system we have.
Unfortunately, the media is all but certain of the guilt of the Tsarnaev brothers, and are ready and willing to narrate their stories to justify this guilt. They have passed judgment, and now prey on our anger to build the story. As any story fueled by the selective and narrow-minded biases of our darker inclinations must be, it is a compelling one. Of course, the suspects are immigrants! Of course they are muslim! And yes, this must have something to do with their own self-radicalization. In case we had doubts, we have the Associated Press providing us with support pieces about the history of unrest in Chechnya, the “unstable” state from which these immigrants came to us. This news source is savvy enough not to point the finger directly. Rather they fuel the story by insinuation. “…if it turns out that the suspects in the Boston bombings are linked to [Chechen] insurgencies…” they write, but provide no alternative to their “if.” The Globe and Mail, meanwhile, fills its coverage with speculation on terrorist links to the boys and their bombings, on the radical background of the suspects, on the unrest in Russia. All these stories are plagued by the same if-statements and innuendo that could only come from a media mechanism bent on narrating an event that as yet has no possible narrative.
In all likelihood, the reports are accurate. The Tsarnaev brothers are very likely the perpetrators of the bombings. This, however, is not the point. The point is, news reporters are in no position to judge guilt or provide a narration of that guilt. They are meant only to report on what can be known. More importantly, their reportage must be balanced by a healthy account of what is not known. Unfortunately, in this day and age to admit ignorance for a newspaper means risking a dip in readership. Especially with a story like this, readers are searching for answers. They are starving after a story because anger loves a story. It gives comfort to those seeking to justify their fury. Even when no justification is available.
The harder emotion to live with is uncertainty, but right now what we need – what we always need in the face of these kinds of tragedy if we are to keep ourselves from tearing each other apart – is the humility to accept there may be no clear answers, no strict heroes and villains. What we need now is something the news media cannot give us, but must: the courage not to report in the absence of a story. We need this precisely because we are all becoming reporters in our age of portable video devices and easy access to social media. We are watching how our more legitimate news sources report the news, and we are learning from them.
My wife and I don’t fight as much anymore. After discovering how deeply anger could warp our perceptions of one another, we decided there were other ways to manage our mutual frustrations. We reserved judgment. We let the other person talk. We tried to keep an open mind towards our own faults, our own ability to misjudge. We can do this, because what we are trying to hold together is so much more important than our need to be right or righteous. We hold onto the relationship itself in all its frailty and joy, and so we let humility guide us for fear of being torn apart by the wolves of our darker natures.