Tuesday, April 23, 2013



An overzealous response to terror can be terrifying

To follow the drama of the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bomber online through Twitter, Reddit, television, police scanners and news updates was to be inundated with an abundance of almost real-time information.
Anyone with internet access could get a virtual view of events, blow by blow, and connect the dots, rightly or wrongly, along the way.
To follow the tweets of Watertown eyewitnesses in particular was to be thrust into a front-row seat of a real-life horror movie of guns popping in the dark and bodies falling, police cars racing and bystanders mistakenly apprehended.
Bearing witness to breaking news informed by a rash of sightings, bedroom-window reporting and stunning digital photos and telephone videos of shootouts and shutdowns as police and hundreds of helpers from assorted government agencies locked down a small community in search of a dangerous man was a full-spectrum, surround-sound cinematic experience.
As the manhunt dragged on and anger and angst mounted, there were inevitable media gaffes, verbal lynchings and anti-immigration narratives being inappropriately raised and, worst of all, rash judgements assigning guilt to innocents, whether it be police takedowns and strip-searches or internet hatemongers baying for the blood of alleged culprits.
Twitter was fast, and fairly accurate when sourced to people on the scene, but careless headlines in the New York Post and crowd-sourced speculation about guilt, especially on Reddit, could have led to real-life harm as complete innocents were painted as guilty based on incomplete information and knee-jerk speculation.
Television news ranged from agenda-driven drivel on Fox to attention-seeking, celebrity-hosted bloviating by CNN _ and yet television news, CNN included, also rose to the occasion, carrying riveting interviews with relatives of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers, of which paternal uncle Ruslan's interrogation was the most searing and memorable.
Watching TV with a computer in lap and police scanner reports blaring in a set of headphones, I found myself thinking of an epic horror film about the nature of evil and the potential evils of society's sometimes vile response to evil.
The movie M, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Peter Lorre, was first released in Germany in 1931. It is a riveting crime drama about a heinous criminal and the overwrought manhunt that brings him down.
It examines both the natural desire for vigilante justice and some of the unnatural and inadvertent consequences of a bumbling official response as public anger is unleashed. It shows solid upright citizens doing their part to make the streets safer, and illustrates the ability of a despicable, but wily and all-too-human criminal to escape detection longer than expected.
It shows a man who commits beastly crimes get his just deserts as he is hunted down like a beast.
It is a haunting film, set in the Weimar Republic's roaring '20s and it speaks to contemporary America in several important ways.
M entertains and discomforts in equal measure, raising the hairs on the back of one's neck while also raising critical social issues.
The Nazis, on the rise but not yet in power, thought it was about them and tried to ban it, but it was sufficiently abstract, and the Weimar Republic sufficiently free, for it to hit the movie theatres and create a sensational storm of debate.
Part of the film's resonance with recent events is the central focus on a manhunt for a despicable criminal, who has no redeeming features other than having been born human, and yet by the end of the film the viewer has at least a flicker of feeling for the perpetrator while being filled with dread and foreboding about society's lockstep direction.
Perusing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's Twitter account is to be uncomfortably reminded that the "monster" who placed a bomb next to a child and other innocents, was in many other respects a normal American teenager who liked to Tweet about girls, cars, TV shows, video games, burgers and his reluctance to get a haircut.
Assuming the Twitter account Jahar@J_tsar, which opens with the Arabic greeting "Salam alaikum" (peace be upon you), proves genuine, it shows a teenager grappling with self-presentation, identity, desire and familiar social issues before and after committing an unspeakable crime. One needn't like him, but one cannot deny the recognisably banal human attributes.
Another way M resonates with current events is that it portrays a troubled society in transition, rocked by political bickering, ponderous bureaucracy and radical technological change.
In 1920s Germany, sound was being introduced to cinema, photography was reaching technological heights, the printing press more efficient, the radio was finding its way into every living room and traditional media and culture were under siege, much as is the case today with the promise, disconcerting tendencies and disruptions, of the digital revolution.
The lavish use of storefront windows in the film, representing the unprecedented transparency of the Weimar period and the rise of advertising, anticipates contemporary disquiet about issues of transparency and privacy.
Finally, the closure of a city and the sight of so many jack-booted men on the ground in search of a single criminal raises uncomfortable questions about over-zealous manhunts, disproportionate application of force, and the high-strung emotional excesses of the security state.
What this means for US society is unclear, but the twisted militarism, pathological patriotism and groupthink of Germany in the 1930s was all too horrific to bear repeating in any shape or form. Terrorism is never good, but a trumped up response to terror can be terrifying, too.