The April 15 bomb attack on the Boston Marathon was horrific, and the murder of three people, including an 8-year-old child, is a tragedy. Unfortunately, the week of the bombing was also characterized by the undignified, salivating scramble of the media to turn the bombing into as big a tragedy as possible. To be clear: the Boston attack wasn’t the World Trade Center. It wasn’t even Oklahoma City. And yet, in their never-ending, sensationalistic pursuit of ratings, the media is attempting to return us to the same collective mindset of overwhelming fear that defined the first decade of the 21st century.
It wasn’t just the senseless rush for details leading to gross journalistic inaccuracies. The New York Post “scooped” everyone else on the day of the bombing by reporting 12 dead and a Saudi suspect in custody; they were wrong on both counts. On April 17, CNN reported the arrest of “a dark-skinned male,” then hastily backtracked when it turned out no arrest had been made. The next day, the Post ran a front-page photograph of two men, claiming the FBI was searching for them. Both were innocent, and one, 17-year-old Salah Barhoun, has stated the article made him afraid to go outside.
None of this quick-and-dirty, totally inaccurate reporting escaped the attention of the FBI, who released a statement on April 18 asking the media, in so many words, to please shut the hell up until there’s something to report.
It wasn’t just the uncouth insistence on immediately casting blame on generic ideological scapegoats. Right-wing media immediately assumed Muslim terrorists were responsible; left-wing media thought it was probably the work of anti-government conservatives; conspiracy theorists everywhere started babbling about a government “false flag” operation. Long before the world learned the names of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, so-called reporters were jumping over one another to find a politically expedient group of people to pin the crime on, regardless of actual facts.
It wasn’t just the immediate frenzy of political partisanship masquerading as compassion. After President Obama’s official response to the incident, right-wingers went ballistic over the fact that he hadn’t used the word “terror.” This prompted the White House to come back to the media, wringing their hands and insisting it was terror, of course it was terror, please don’t be mad at us for failing to use one of the most meaningless words currently in existence.
They weren’t the only ones. The April 16 edition of USA Today ran with the headline “TERROR RETURNS” in letters an inch high. The actual news story on the bombing was titled “That Post-9/11 Quiet? It’s Over” and contained nine distinct uses of the phrase “9/11.” The New York Times went with “Bombings End Decade Without Terror in U.S,” though the statement was so laughable, it was quickly edited to read “Bombings End Decade of Strikingly Few Successful Terrorism Attacks in U.S.” Then there were the op-eds, the most jingoistically stupid of which ran, not surprisingly, on FoxNews.com.
“Nothing will be quite the same in Boston or in America after Monday’s terrorist attack,” wrote Fox’s Keith Ablow. “The bombings mean that any street corner, in any American City, is vulnerable . . . Because the target of those who hate freedom is anyone who loves it, anywhere, anytime.”
This is the real problem: the undiluted efforts of the media to return the country to its post-9/11 culture of fear. Fear is good for nationalism. Fear is good for control. Fear, above all, is good for business. After the 9/11 attacks, it was the fear of terrorism that transformed the U.S. into the deadliest terrorist organization the world has ever seen. Our tax dollars killed 12 Afghani children in an airstrike on April 8, but the media didn’t care. A week later, a pair of bombs went off in Boston, three people died, and everyone lost their minds. Isn’t it nice to be American?
If this is terrorism, it must be working. We’re terrified.