The day before the Boston Marathon bombing a friend suggested that I read Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 book, A Paradise Built in Hell. It turned out to be perfect timing, much in the way that my reading of Jared Diamond’s Collapse as Hurricane Katrina gathered strength provided a fascinating lens through which to observe the devastation wrought by the storm itself and the government’s flailing response.
Solnit’s main argument is that people tend to behave well in disasters while elites often panic as their usual control breaks down. She provides a devastating critique of how elites and their command-and-control structures are ill-suited for the chaos following disaster.
I recommend Solnit’s challenging but ultimately encouraging book to everyone. But if you want just a taste of her thinking, her essay “Unpacking for Disaster” underlines the ways in which letting fear drive our thoughts is counterproductive as we face the challenges and opportunities that come with disaster. Please at least read that.
Solnit’s claims are supported by current events including the grassroots recovery work of Occupy Sandy, which continues to this day. We can also see Solnit’s analysis supported by the mutual aid exhibited in West, Texas; in the wake of a truly devastating industrial accident the community of West is rebuilding while formal “relief” efforts are marginally helpful and sometimes disruptive.
Solnit also illustrates how media coverage tends to support the elite’s reading of the crisis, emphasizing awful details – real and rumored – that serve to stampede the public into accepting the suspension of its freedom – including the freedom to attempt its own solutions to whatever crisis it faces.
What Solnit calls “elite panic” – including sending in the troops to ostensibly protect a community from itself – has also been on display in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, coverage of which seems to have been distorted to favor technological or military solutions of the sort delivered by government.
In fact, community should actually get credit. Dzokhar Tsarnaev was discovered by a citizen who stepped out for a smoke only after the siege was lifted.
The coverage of Tsarnaev’s capture was plagued with many falsehoods of this sort. One narrative claimed that whiz-bang technology like newfangled thermal imaging system was what helped a helicopter “find” him.
And numerous articles suggested causation by saying the arrest “followed” the lockdown. I even saw one article claiming that the invasion of Watertown by a joint police/military force “led to” Tsarnaev’s capture (this article seems to have been withdrawn or edited – which is good – although the damage has been done as most people never notice quiet retractions of hysterical rumors).
Make no mistake – the government’s attempt to find Tsarnaev was an invasion using techniques practiced in Iraq and Afghanistan including military police pointing their guns at neighbors who dared to peer out at them. That the neighborhood was generally receptive to such an invasion does not alter its obviously warlike character.
Imagine another scenario: Instead of being immigrants of an obscure ethnicity with no connections to Watertown, what if the Tsarnaev brothers were part of a large marginalized community? And what if their flight had ended where they and their neighbors had already suffered years or generations of profiling, harassment and suspicion?
Things could have turned out quite differently with all those hair-triggers in Humvees. Watertown could have easily started looking like Fallujah or Kandahar with one overreaction sparking tit-for-tat responses. We got lucky this time.
Even so, we should expect this now-established precedent – previously displayed in New Orleans – to be repeated even in cases where the public has a less antagonistic relationship with the fugitive, such as following a civil disturbance.
Perhaps in the absence of the lockdown, the neighbor who discovered Tsarnaev might have gone to work and a Red Sox game and noticed Tsarnaev only after he died of blood loss. We can’t know that. What we do know is that the official response yielded its desired results neither in the declared search area nor outside of it, gave people misplaced fear (inside) or complacency (outside) and led the pursuers away from their target by making an official claim that he was in area X and not in area Y while making it extremely unlikely that anyone would discover him by chance in either zone.
Even so, the public seems to like the lockdown, with all the spectacle of an action movie. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll indicated that sixty percent of respondents said that the lockdown helped catch the suspect, while only 18 percent said that it made no difference and 4 percent said that it hurt efforts to catch the suspects.
Remember that the lockdown actually prevented Tsarnaev’s discovery and capture.
We must listen critically to government’s claims that the invasion of Watertown was a success – and that we therefore can’t trust our own judgment in an emergency. The government’s judgment is what should be suspect: For starters the geography of the lockdown was nonsensical as downtown and even the far southeastern reaches of Boston were shut down while the relatively close-by suburbs were not (despite the fact that they were in the direction in which the brothers had been headed and in which Tsarnaeve could be expected to continue).
And as a threatening new strain of influenza kills one in five people it infects – despite all top-down efforts to contain it – we should ponder how governments might respond to an invisible and rapidly-spreading pandemic. Most likely we’ll see draconian crackdowns and geographic quarantines of exactly the sort that failed to catch a single badly-wounded teenager whose face was all over the internet and television. Do we really believe this approach will catch an unknown and growing number of infected people, including those without symptoms?
Granted, quarantine is a time-tested response that is effective in dealing with identified cases of illness as well as those believed to be infected due to specific exposures or circumstances. But if Hollywood is any guide – which Solnit points out it should not be – such quarantines will not be the communal suffering of the old-style sick ward. Instead, we are more likely to see a terrifying lockdown in which government enforcers (presumably wearing respirators and heavily-armed) will prevent us from caring for our neighbors whether they are ill, healthy or of unknown health status.
So what do we do about this? The government’s default reflex is clear enough and I doubt it can be stopped when the next disaster hits. A softer approach that resists sharp geographical lockdowns would heighten vigilance outside any official red zone without suspending the liberty and lives of those inside, but admittedly might not work.
And there’s the rub.
As with terrorism, or earthquakes, or industrial explosions, we ultimately can’t guarantee anything will protect us from harm. Maybe we will fall down the stairs of our apocalyptic underground bunker.
What’s left is to mitigate that harm and accept risk as part of life.
We should not accept the foolish notion that allowing the forced shutdown of community, the economy and society as a whole will somehow save us from whatever we fear. Rather, we should honestly consider Solnit’s conclusions – based on the academic work of sociologists who study disaster for a living – and embrace each other even in the most difficult of times.
Especially in the most difficult of times.