Five Best Tuesday Columns
Nicholas Thompson on what a marathon attack means, John Tlumacki on photographing horror, Patton Oswalt on how tragedy renews our shared humanity, David Weigel on the futility of conspiracy theories, and Whitney Erin Boesel on Vine's role in replaying news.
Nicholas Thompson at The New Yorker on what a marathon attack means To bomb a marathon, writes Nicholas Thompson, is to stage an attack on human achievement in its most everyday form. "It's an epic event," Thompson writes, "in which men and women appear almost superhuman. The winning men run for hours at a pace even normal fit people can only hold in a sprint. But it's also so ordinary. It's not held in a stadium or on a track. It's held in the same streets everyone drives on and walks down. An attack on a marathon is, in some ways, more devastating than an attack on a stadium; you're hitting something special but also something very quotidian." By the same token, he argues, we can't say for sure who would devise such a plot. "When we find out who did this, we may well find some fascination with the event—perhaps a foreign terrorist, or a sick American. ... Or perhaps it was someone who saw a reflection of the human spirit and decided just to try to shatter it." Thompson's colleague Susan Orlean concurs: "If the explosions were purposeful, whoever did it knew that it would catch people at an exceptional, joyous moment, when they come together in the sweetest way, helping each other fly." Isa Qasim at the Yale Daily News agrees, in a ruminative piece on the nature of running: "Running is not an escape. It is a confrontation. It is a refusal to accept the world as it is and an almost naive insistence that work can change things for the better. It is a refusal to accept terror. That is why I, try as I might, cannot view this marathon as a tragedy. A tragedy is irredeemable, but the events of yesterday have already been redeemed."
John Tlumacki at Time on photographing the explosions What is it like to photograph horror as it rapidly unfolds? John Tlumacki, a long-time photographer for The Boston Globe, writes that the explosions both terrified him and triggered his instinct to capture what was going on. "There was this big cloud of smoke and people screaming. The percussion from that explosion threw my cameras up in the air. Right in front of me, one of the runners fell on the ground — he was blown over from the blast. My instinct was … no matter what it is, you’re a photographer first, that’s what you’re doing." Honestly documenting tragedy, he writes, requires seeking the truth without exploiting suffering. "You try not to get your emotions involved, but there was this man who was kneeling over this woman. Obviously she was injured pretty badly, and he's just comforting her. ... From a photographer’s point of view, you’ve seen these pictures before. I made it, and then I moved on. But then a cop came to me, grabbed me, and said: 'Do me a favor. Do not exploit the situation.' And that resonated with me. I can't think about it — I gotta keep doing what I'm doing." New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof described Tlumacki's piece as a "wrenching account [of the] finish line."
Patton Oswalt at Facebook on the humanity of the Boston Marathon Even after 9/11, the actions of humans continue to astound, horrify, and impress, writes the actor Patton Oswalt — a truth renewed by Monday's bombings at the Boston Marathon. Writing of the people or person responsible for the explosions, Oswalt says, "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. ... 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." Such moments expose the greater good among us. "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." Chris Mottram of SB Nation, echoing the sentiment of many, called Oswalt's essay the "best thing I've read about the Boston bombings." At TheAtlantic.com, Bruce Schneier shares a similar sentiment: "It'd be easy, but it'd be wrong. We need to be angry and empathize with the victims without being scared."
David Weigel at Slate on the futility of concocting conspiracy theories Almost immediately after news of the Boston bombing began to spread, professional conspiracy theorists began to dissect any and all evidence for signs of a nefarious plot. (As the Wire's Philip Bump noted on Monday night, some think the bombing is a "false flag" operation.) That's going to be pretty difficult, says David Weigel, since "the attacks in Boston lack a number of the factors they need to concoct a really compelling conspiracy theory." After running down those factors — ubiquitous cameras, the declining half-life of rumors thanks to Twitter, and so on — Weigel explains the underlying problem: "The conspiracies are weak. And so easily debunked! There were no 'loud speakers telling people in the audience to be calm.' [InfoWars proprietor Alex Jones] seems obsessed with proving that there were bomb-sniffing dogs on site. It's a comforting worldview — the only way that police on the scene might have missed the bombs is a conspiracy of silence. You can understand why they cling to this. Maybe they shouldn't get the first questions during the press conferences, though." It's unlikely they'll go away either. As J. Dana Stuster at Foreign Policy noted that the speed with which theories gained currency indicates that we'll be hearing from them for a while: "There's very little known about the explosions so far, and it may be days before they can be positively attributed to a person or organization. But this is an early indication of the type of controversy that will persist long after the truth has come out."
Whitney Erin Boesel at The Society Pages on the audiovisual element of witnessing tragedy Responding to Quartz's Christopher Mims, who argued that the Boston Marathon "[found] its purpose" in spreading a short, looping video of the Boston Marathon explosion, Whitney Erin Boesel takes a look at the play and replay of horrifying images in the aftermath of tragedy. "Through Vine, the explosion happens just not on seemingly infinite replay, but on infinite replay. Enabled by a long chain of people, institutions, technologies, and devices—a chain that begins with a news channel, a cameraperson, and a video camera; a chain that culminates with Vine, a Vine user, and a smartphone—the explosion footage now seems to replay 'all by itself.'" This has undeniable implications on the way we process events like Monday's — over which, Boesel argues, we can still exert choice and control. "In the end, the question is not whether Vine has 'found its purpose,' but whether we want this to be its purpose — because shaping Vine’s purpose is up to us." Still, nobody denies that the Vine in question boosted the app's profile. Michael McCarthy and Rupal Parekh at Advertising Age write that Vine "experienced a major moment as news vehicle during the tragedy."