The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
— Ezra Pound
When bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last Monday, their reverberations cascaded across the country. For hours
there was an uncertainty about what exactly had transpired and who was responsible for this massacre. As if on cue, much of the media fell back upon the apparitions that often seem to haunt the American imagination during times of crisis and uncertainty.
Within hours of the bombings, the internet was abuzz with rumors of a “Saudi national” who was suspected of the bombing. The FBI quickly debunked this rumor. Fox News, nonetheless, sent a reporter to the apartment of the Saudi non-suspect, and interrogated his roommate asking, “Do you think your friend did this?”
The day after the bombing the cover of the New York Post ran a photo of a teenage immigrant from Morocco standing near the finish line of the race, with headlines screaming “Bag Men”. The boy was innocent.
Then John King of CNN cut to the chase when he said on national television, “I want to be very careful about this, because people get very sensitive when you say these things. I was told by one of these sources who is a law enforcement official that this is a dark-skinned male."
As we all know by now the suspects are not Arab nor are they particularly dark.
But here is a remarkable aspect of the chaotic events that unfolded over those tense hours. Public officials and law enforcement agencies in Massachusetts consistently debunked the media’s attempts to stir up our national apparitions. Their response to this horrific incident was something approaching perfection. They took the time necessary to identify the suspects. They tracked them down quickly. They did everything within their power to minimize bloodshed. They re-wrote the text on how to manage this sort of crisis.
Rewind the clock to October 23, 1989. In the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, just a few miles from where this bombing occurred, a young white couple was driving home from a childbirth class when tragedy struck. Carol Stuart, a rock star attorney only 30 years old and eight months pregnant with her first child, was shot in the head and killed. Her husband, Charles Stuart was shot in the abdomen. The Stuart’s child was delivered via caesarean section but died 17 days later. It was a nightmare scenario.
Charles Stuart claimed that an African-American man had carjacked the couple, robbed them and attempted to murder them both. The nightmare now had a familiar contour to it.
Boston’s police department undertook a “wilding spree”, blanketing black neighborhoods in the city and frisking countless black men. Boston Mayor Ray Flynn put flesh on these apparitions by vowing to “get the animals responsible” for the attack. Eventually a man named Willie Bennett was arrested, and Charles Stuart immediately fingered him as the culprit.
Earlier that year, just down the I-95 corridor in New York City, a similar tragedy unfolded. A young investment banker was jogging through Central Park on a warm April evening, when she was brutally beaten and raped. Police immediately arrested five black and Latino teenagers and charged them with the attack. New York Mayor Ed Koch frothed at the mouth as he railed against these boys. Several New York media outlets referred to them as a “wolf pack”. Donald Trump took out full-page newspaper ads calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York so that these boys could be executed. All of the boys were eventually convicted and served lengthy prison sentences. When they were released the notoriety of the crime prevented most of them from getting jobs.
What do the Moroccan teenager, the Saudi national, Willie Bennett and the five teenagers in New York have in common? They were all innocent.
Willie Bennett was saved only by the gross incompetence of Charles Stuart. Stuart’s clumsy plot to murder his pregnant wife and collect upon her life insurance, unraveled when his guilt wracked younger brother confessed the scheme to the police. The boys in New York---the Central Park Five as they came to be known---were not so lucky. They served lengthy prison sentences before the actual perpetrator confessed.
Such was the world in 1989; a world where the American media, public officials and law enforcement were so haunted by the ghostly image of black and brown men wilding against an innocent white public, that no amount of evidence could steer them towards truth and reason.
Fast forward to 2013. The sneering vitriol of Ed Koch and Ray Flynn, has been replaced by the steady visage of Deval Patrick, Massachusetts’ African-American governor. His calm response to the crisis doubtless saved lives and unfolded with remarkable efficiency. Donald Trump’s calls for a state sponsored bloodletting, contrast sharply with the nation’s first black President confidently asserting that justice will be served in Boston. And instead of aiding and abetting a media’s paranoid visions of spooks and phantoms, law enforcement officials actively fought against them.
The pointless murder that ripped through the Boston Marathon last week is deeply saddening. The response of public officials in Boston---presaging a new, more mature America---allows all of us to collectively grieve.