It was unbelievable, another disorienting moment in the endless surrealist march that was Patriots’ Day 2013 in the cradle of American independence. Somehow, a “reporter” named Dan Bidondi, from the hysteria outlet Infowars, had gotten press credentials and was busy asking the governor of Massachusetts a question he wouldn’t have dreamed of that morning, or any other:
Why were the loud speakers telling people in the audience to be calm moments before the bombs went off? Is this another “false flag” staged attack to take our civil liberties and promote homeland security while sticking their hands down our pants on the streets?
Governor Deval Patrick fixed him with a stare both steely and withering. “No,” he replied.
In the general chaos that was the Boston Marathon bombing, most folks had the same reaction: dismissive and perturbed. Americans have a healthy distrust of government, as they do with all centers of power — the ones they’re informed about, that is. But from any rational standpoint, the idea of Boston being used as a “false flag” by the Feds is ridiculous.
Let’s set aside the fact that his base claim of loudspeakers urging the crowd to “be calm” too early is a complete fairytale. If you were going to use the formidable power of the US Government to simulate a terrorist attack, it stands to reason you could do a better job of it: the results of those two homemade bombs, while tragic, weren’t military grade, or even nearly as effective as they should have been. Three dead was probably not the intent, the bombs having been placed too low to affect vital organs and too far back in the crowd to target the runners. A little investigation would have also shown that Boston on Patriots’ Day was already a petri dish for new disaster prevention and response. Shocking and even tragic as the bombing was, it was amateur hour.
Then there’s the matter of assigning a motive. Bidondi assumed the Feds killed three people and wounded hundreds more simply because they get off on groping us, but back at Infowars homebase, his boss Alex Jones was struggling to make an even more tenuous connection: the price of gold had been falling what with the economic recovery, and this would scare the sheep enough to bring it back up.
For too many conspiracy theorists, however, logic is usually beside the point. Like a novelist, you can just change the story to get to your predetermined ending. Of course the bombing was amateurish — all the better to fool people into thinking it was authentic! This is a classic example of an existential fallacy: Obama’s birth certificate and the moon landing both look completely real, which only goes to show how cleverly they were faked. It’s a literal rejection of reality.
What’s worse, that kind of thinking weakens our perceptions of the actual games being played on us during these very real tragedies, the kind of psychological reinforcement that’s more subtle, more public, and more pervasive. The way power usually works.
It’s hard to explain to a foreigner the kind of rhetoric we Americans usually spout after something like this, comforting phrases that revolve around our noblesse oblige concept of ourselves as people who rule the world for a reason. Like all empires, we consider ourselves both morally superior as individuals and more structurally sound as a society. I’ve only been to one foreign country, which puts me ahead of most of my fellow Americans, but nothing I saw there suggested that those people wouldn’t respond in exactly the same way as we do after a bombing: helping the injured, donating our time and money, offering moral support. It’s great to be in a first world country when the shit goes down, but the rhetoric we always hear after a 9/11 or a Newtown or a Katrina reinforces the continuing narrative that our compassion and survival instinct are not only ingrained in our national character but naturally superior. Did the Japanese tsunami survivors leave the victims where they lay? Did the community around Oslo refuse to reach out to the families of the children Anders Brevik killed? Did London suddenly shut down for good after the 2005 bombings, when 52 died and 700 were injured? Of course not.
And yet the idea persists that we’re unique, merely by virtue of having been born here; the first thing Americans seem to do after mourning and cleaning up is to reassure ourselves that our model of society is the best.
Here’s the President, mere hours after the incident:
“So if you want to know who we are, what America is, how we respond to evil — that’s it. Selflessly. Compassionately. Unafraid.”
Suffolk County DA Daniel Conley, not coincidentally running for mayor of Boston:
“That’s what Americans do in times of crisis. We come together and we help one another. Moments like these, terrible as they are, don’t show our weakness, they show our strength.”
Amby Burfoot, winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon, was participating again on that fateful day, and was stopped short by the bombing. He gave an inspirational interview to the Washington Post, but nevertheless declared the bombing to be “an attack against the American public and our democratic use of the streets.” As he knows, there are marathons in dozens of countries around the world, and while you could argue that a democratic country puts on a better, freer, more organized marathon, America itself doesn’t bring anything especially unique to the table. The attack had everything to do with America’s image and its crowds, but nothing to do with marathons or democracy.
Ironically, all this is also an existential fallacy; you can successfully argue that life is cheaper somewhere, just not everywhere. Worse, the vision of America as blessed is exactly the same argument of moral superiority used by the type of human filth that puts a pressure-cooker bomb in a backpack, but our special, unique arrogance is assuming that our greatness is what’s getting us killed. You remember; it’s how we got into Iraq. They hate our freedoms. And while the folks at Infowars may not trust their government, they absolutely believe in that sort of false flag.
The irony gets lost in the chaos, in the tears, and that’s understandable for a while, because it’s both natural and necessary to grieve. Of course Americans need to pull together and press on unafraid. Anyone would. It’s absolutely time to turn to Boston and offer a shoulder, a hand, a prayer. As with 9/11, we need our national unity in times of crisis. And there were dozens of documented moments where Americans demonstrated the best of humanity.
To assume they acted out of some innate Americanness, however, instead of their humanity, is a dangerous game. It reinforces the policies and ideologies that helped get us to this point in the first place, and since the bombs found at the site of the massacre were exactly the same type as those made by the Taliban in Afghanistan, we can be fairly sure someone — citizen? crazed loner? operative? — was trying to make that point for us.
Finally, it’s also self-evident that all people should be free to walk anywhere with a backpack, but no number of security guards can make us safe if we keep assuming that we don’t leave fingerprints on the world, or that we’re somehow divinely protected from being touched back. There have been a number of stories about 53-year-old Carlos Arredondo, the cowboy-hatted Boston native who jumped right into the fray on that horrifying day and saved several lives, including a man who’d had both legs blown off. What’s less reported is the reason he went to the marathon in the first place: to hand out American flags in honor of his two sons. One had been killed while serving in Iraq, and the other had committed suicide, seemingly in part because of his grief over his brother’s untimely death. When Arredondo used one of the flags as a tourniquet, he moaned, “Look at the flag, all bleeding.”
Not technically true, of course. But it got a lot of press.