Boston and West, Texas
Last week was filled with news of tragic events that unfolded in Boston, MA and West, TX. These two events dominated television news coverage (including major unscheduled pre-emptions on the major broadcast networks) as well as other media outlets.Coverage was not always accurate, as is often the case when dealing with rapidly developing stories.
The two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday killed 3 people and seriously wounded scores of others. Coverage of the event along with the search for and death of one suspect and the capture of his accomplice/brother became almost the sole subject of discussion on expanded news coverage on both broadcast networks and cable news networks for the remainder of the week. Much of the coverage consisted of anchors and terrorism experts speculating as to what exactly happened and why, since factual news of the events and knowledge of the perpetrators and their motives was slow to develop and be made public.
Once the perpetrators were identified by means of surveillance photos published by law enforcement officials, events escalated until one suspect was shot and killed in a shootout with police. The escape of his brother prompted an unprecedented lockdown of much of the greater Boston area until just before the remaining suspect was caught and transported, seriously wounded, to a hospital. Much of this transpired on Friday. The only respite from the coverage of these events on our local news was a split-screen partial out-take to allow our local news people to cover a tornado warning in a portion of the viewing area.
The quality of the coverage varied by network, as was to be expected considering the importance placed on the events and the dearth of actual information to be conveyed at any given time. At times, I was reminded of the “balloon boy” hoax coverage of awhile back, as well as the Super Bowl coverage back in February (which was subsequently lampooned by Saturday Night Live). To be fair, the subject was far more serious and not a hoax, but how many variations of “we don’t really know much about what happened, who did it or why” can news bureaus come up with and retain credibility? True, many of us gained important insights into terrorist activities and counter-measures that we may not have been aware of, but did that mean that justify ignoring other important events? Was this really THE only thing of importance occurring at this time throughout the nation and world? I suspect these questions is no.
While the media may be guilty of inflating the importance of the Boston situation, the authorities seem to have worked very effectively and methodically to both identify the culprits and bring them to justice. Was the lockdown of Boston to search for and capture one man really called for? I do think that the declaration of virtual martial law may have been a bit heavy-handed, despite the seriousness of the crimes committed and the devastation brought to the victims, their friends and families. I cannot recall a similar scenario being played out previously in order to capture a single person.
Between the Boston bombings on Monday and the capture of the remaining suspect on Friday, the fire and explosion at the fertilizer plant in town of West, Texas took place. The destruction of property, loss of life and persons injured by the blast was far worse than that caused by the explosions in Boston. For awhile, the scene was treated as a crime scene, and the networks shifted some of their coverage to that location. This dissipated once it was determined to be the result of an industrial accident rather than a terrorist attack on the heels of the Boston attack.
There are several lessons that may be learned from both incidents. One is that, despite all the post 9/11 efforts to alleviate the threat of terrorist attacks, we are still vulnerable to them. It is still possible for a determined person or group to create death, destruction and mayhem using readily available materials and instructions that just about anyone can easily access in the public domain. No matter how much we do to make that impossible, we will likely never succeed. Further curtailing civil liberties and instituting martial law conditions in response to or anticipation of potential future occurrences will not eliminate them and will negatively impact all our lifestyles.
We also learned that in this era of plentiful surveillance cameras, cell phone cameras and the like, it has become much more difficult to pull off an attack like the Boston Marathon bombing without being caught. This won’t dissuade potential suicide bombers in all likelihood, but that wasn’t what was faced in this attack. Despite their failure to escape after their crime however, the terrorists were able to bring a major US metropolitan area to a virtual standstill for the better part of a week and distract a large portion of the rest of the nation from other important matters.
I fear that the events in Boston will now impact other very important aspects of our lives and the course of events in policy-making in Washington. The immigration debate is already being affected by the implications of the ethnicity, religion and immigration status of the suspects. Will it doom efforts at comprehensive immigration reform in this Congress? Only time will tell. Optimism in this regard is hard to come by in light of the failure of the Senate thus far to pass any meaningful gun safety measures, despite public opinion favoring them overwhelmingly.
Will there be calls for even more restrictions on our civil liberties than have been brought about by the Patriot Act and NDAA in the aftermath of 9/11? There have been calls for that from some of our politicians. One of the items which missed the attention of most last week was the passage in the House of Representatives of CISPA, which would severely curtail our internet privacy rights and strengthen government access to personal information there. Will the perceived need for ever more security and safety lead to ever more burdensome limits being placed on our individual liberties and freedoms?
Hopefully, more attention will also be paid in ensuing weeks and months to the lessons we must learn from the tragedy in Texas. The fertilizer plant explosion closely resembled the truck bomb exploded by Timothy McVeigh at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, OK on April 19, 1995 (that is a date that is easy for me to remember, as it is also my birthday. Waco happened exactly two years earlier. Sometimes it is hard to celebrate that day). The materials were basically the same. Many questions have arisen regarding the safety history of the plant.
Unlike the Boston bombing, the Texas fire and explosion should have been far more easily predicted and thus prevented. Similar potential disasters await in a myriad of locations throughout the country if adequate attention is not paid to ensuring that essential workplace health and safety policies are in place and strictly adhered to. All kinds of factories and plants, including nuclear power plants, could create devastating situations that would dwarf both the Boston bombs and the Texas explosion (even the destruction of the Twin Towers) in terms of loss of life and property. How much damage is being done by way of budget cuts to the departments and agencies charged with inspecting these facilities, ensuring their safe operation and bring to justice those who refuse to comply with regulations?
We need to answer all of these questions. Our government needs to act to enhance our safety from preventable accidents in the future, and continue being vigilant in ferreting out potential terrorists without destroying our freedoms and way of life in the process. Letting the terrorists distract us from these other important issues, for however short a period of time, gives them at least a partial victory that they do not deserve. Overreacting in our responses to their actions makes us more like them than we should ever strive to be. They should be treated as the criminals they are suspected of being, no better and no worse. Justice for a murderer does not change based upon the weapon they use to kill.
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