The Washington Post

A chaotic and unnerving week in American history

A note from Joel: 

Chris, here’s my week-in-review, and sorry that it’s not more political – I had to write to the news unfolding this morning. All week, huge stories overtook political news and, except for the demise of the gun bill in the Senate, it was hard to stay focused on Washington.

 I do have one thought about news coverage. Journalism had a rough week – lots of misinformation passed along by some normally reputable outlets (CNN, for example). If you are a journalist you should remember that the number one goal is to be right. Fast is good; right is better. Don’t get ahead of the facts, be wary of speculation, add a caveat, withhold judgment, be clear about what you know. Those in the opinion business should be open minded and intellectually generous rather than sanctimonious and arrogant and hateful. I’d argue that these rules extend to all citizens, not just people who sling words for a living. Civility is a virtue, particularly in moments of crisis. 

Friday morning America woke up to more mayhem -- a manhunt for a terrorist in suburban Boston. The whole city on lockdown.
 One suspect dead. Officer slain. Another officer shot. Thousands of officers geared up and ready for battle.

It was, and is, utterly captivating. It also is almost unendurable. A person would be forgiven for turning off the television, 
shutting down the computer, and going back to bed to hide under the covers. For those of a gentle disposition, this was all 
too much like an episode of "24," or a Bruce Willis movie.

This may have been the most chaotic and unnerving week in recent American history. An Elvis impersonator mailed poison letters
 to Washington (as many people have noted, Elvis would never do a thing like that). And in West, Texas, a fertilizer plant
exploded as if hit with a small nuclear bomb, killing an unknown number of people and leveling multiple city blocks.

It seems that the third week in April has become our time of calamity. The Branch Davidian fire (1993), Oklahoma City (1995),
 Columbine (1999), Virginia Tech (2007), the BP oil spill (2010) and now the Boston Marathon bombings all took place between
April 15 and 20. For that matter, the Texas City fertilizer explosion of 1947, America's worst industrial accident, happened
 on April 16. Pattern? The Oklahoma City bombing was timed to be on the anniversary of Waco, but otherwise it's a fluke, a 
coincidence that the country can hope will fade away amid many peaceful Aprils to come.

The motive for the Boston bombings is still unknown. News reports are conflicting. The two brothers apparently have been in
 the country for years. Described as Chechens, it's not obvious that their birth country is relevant. This may turn into a
confluence of terror narratives and criminal patterns -- radical ideology, alienated youth, divided families, the influence 
of a charismatic leader, and finally the desire for media exposure.

Two brothers, apparently, were able to kill innocent people with makeshift bombs using ordinary pressure cookers and material
 that might have cost only $100. Thursday night they robbed a 7-Eleven, killed a campus police officer, carjacked a Mercedes
 SUV and tried to flee. Pending further information, this does not look like the work of a couple of criminal masterminds.

A striking feature of this week's news has been misinformation. That's been present with every big breaking story for many
 years, including 9/11, when Washingtonians heard incorrect reports of explosions at the State Department, the Capitol and 
the USA Today building. What was different this week was social media, which sped up the misinformation metabolism. The New 
York Post took the prize by putting two innocent guys on the front page, saying their picture had been circulated by authorities.
 The executive editor later defended the decision by saying that the paper never called them suspects. Journalistically, not
 an auspicious moment.

Big stories spawn mistakes. The social-media search for the Boston bombers revealed that even a crowd-sourced investigation,
with myriad eyeballs scanning countless images, can manage to come up with nothing but misleading or erroneous theories.

National tragedies are rarely so prolonged, so unbounded. We come to expect that, after the horror, there will be a period
 of mourning, an attempt at closure, perhaps a church service with remarks by the consoler-in-chief. But on this Friday the
s tory still has no ending, and more families are grieving, and no one knows how this will play out.

As they say: Developing.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."

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