Seeking to relieve trauma, not live in it
On Wednesday night, I was in Cambridge, Mass., at a tiny dive bar called Atwood's, drinking quantities of scotch with friends, and struggling to keep an unspoken pact to leave our cell phones in our pockets.
The point of the evening was to stop thinking about the Boston marathon bombings for a few hours.
We were failing.
Those who had been covering the story veered between desperate bonhomie and hollow-eyed silence. Those of us who hadn't been reporting were doing exactly what you probably were doing (perhaps without the scotch): looking for a way to express sympathy, fear and fury without burdening the companions who were closer to the trauma than we were.
Twenty-four hours later, waves of blue-blazing police cars poured through Cambridge and Watertown. Sirens. Gunshots. People ran to their windows or to their basements.
Twitter burst to life, and the massed journalists who have been waiting for breaks in the bombing story turned to this new madness. Was it related to the bombings? Was it an ordinarily awful 7-11 robbery and carjacking? Was that gunfire? Where?
My phone lit up. The tweets, texts, email and Facebook messages from friends in Durham and elsewhere were quick, thoughtful and utterly misplaced.
“Tell us what's happening there.” “Are you OK? Please check in!!!” “Be safe! Don't go outside.”
I was OK. I was, by chance, about as far from danger as possible, sitting on a hotel bed in New York, listening to the Cambridge police scanner over a wireless connection, watching the story unfold online.
As I write from an ad hoc office in a borrowed conference room in Manhattan, I'm locked out of Boston. Amtrak has stopped running its Northeast Regional trains. The buses stop at Framingham. The MBTA's clattering trains are still. I'm stuck.
Like the rest of the country, I'm not really part of the story, and that would be true even if I were reporting in Cambridge, or locked in an apartment like my friends and colleagues there. Or watching this unfold in Durham. Or on the international space station.
A bomb at the Boston marathon feels like something everyone can share, even at a distance. It feels like a national wound because Boston is so big and storied and old, so many people have passed through the colonial city, so many people touch it in one way or another.
And there is something in the real-time consumption of massive news stories that feels like we're not just witnessing a bombing, a homicide, a manhunt, but sharing the experience of it.
That's a useful impulse if it also inspires us to serve the people at the center of these events.
It's harmful if we imagine that we are also traumatized because we chose to watch it in real time.
It's harmful if we can't gin up the same calls to action unless we feel a personal tie, or personally hurt.
When Bob Ashley asked me to write something for The Herald-Sun, I told him that I was so far from the action that I wasn't sure I had anything to say.
Nothing that makes for a gripping, dramatic narrative, anyway. Maybe one small, useful thing, though, from my position, both emotional and geographic.
It's this: Our job, as spectators, is not to live in the trauma, but to relieve it. And we're lucky if we can.
Betsy O'Donovan, formerly the editorial page and special projects editor at The Herald-Sun, is a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.