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Boston Under Siege, My Kids in the Driveway

Why I avoided the media last week

Getty/Stan Honda

Those of you who have arrived here hoping for a heart-racing account of how I survived the past week in Boston, brace for a letdown.

Despite the images of chaos broadcast nonstop on every available channel, my hometown was not turned into “a city under siege” by the Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent manhunt. This would imply that tens of thousands of residents were in imminent danger, which is, simply put, bullshit.

What happened in Boston was that two violently deranged Chechen immigrants perpetrated a series of ghastly crimes that left four dead and dozens seriously injured. Because the brothers were at large for several days, and well armed, their bloody efforts to evade capture were instantly rendered as a TV drama.

But the siege mentality, I’m afraid, was largely self-induced, the result of that lurid American tendency to overdose on media coverage, then confuse its for-profit hype with real life.

To be clear: Those who were injured in the bombings, or who witnessed them (a group that includes a good friend of ours and her three young sons), have every right to characterize the past week as a living hell, as do those were directly in the path of the  manhunt mayhem, as do any loved ones.

As for the rest of us, tracking the action from the comfort of our sofas doesn’t quite meet the “living hell” smell test. And it strikes me as disrespectful to the actual victims of the Boston blasts—not to mention the victims of the terrorist attacks that take place all across the globe every week—to pretend otherwise.

I should mention at this point that I spent very little time following the story. I was more focused on the Senate filibuster of gun reform laws, an act of astonishing political cowardice likely to result in countless preventable gun deaths.

If you want to take this as evidence of my appalling lack of compassion, go ahead. You wouldn’t be the first. All week, I’ve been hearing from friends and relatives that I’m insufficiently distraught about the bombings.

But the main reason I didn’t immerse myself in the coverage is because I felt manipulated, not informed. It wasn’t just the shoddy reporting—the New York Post trumpeting a dozen dead, the Wall Street Journal citing five additional explosive devices—or the ghoulish obsession with viscera, or even the dependable histrionics of the radio and TV people. It was the familiar feeling that the terror and panic experienced by those at the scene was being transmitted to the public, as if by the ingestion of some powerful anxiety-causing drug, the one labeled Major Media Event.

But you’re reading this piece, most likely, because you want to hear what it was really like living in lockdown. So I’ll skip ahead to the part of the story where the suspects are at large.

My wife and I learned about this Friday morning. I planned to pick up a dresser my wife had purchased on Craigslist. A half hour before the scheduled rendezvous, I received a phone call from the seller. She felt uncomfortable with me picking up the dresser given “everything that had happened.”

I went online and learned that the alleged bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, had killed an MIT security guard and engaged police in a firefight the night before, that the older brother Tamerlan was dead, and that Dzhokar was thought to be hiding somewhere in Watertown, two towns over from us. Police had set up a perimeter, and instructed the residents of Watertown to stay inside their homes.

I called the woman selling the dresser and asked if she would allow me to pick it up, so long as she didn’t have to leave her home. She said okay. Then I called my neighbor, who had agreed to help me lug the thing home in his truck.

He gently suggested that another time would be better. “I’m over here watching what’s going on,” he said. “Do you know what’s going on?” He sounded a bit perplexed as to why I would want to perform this task in the midst of a police lockdown.

The reason is because I didn’t realize there was a lockdown in effect for the entire metro area. I didn’t know Governor Deval Patrick had told Boston area residents not to open their doors to anyone but a uniformed police officer, or that police had advised us to “shelter in place.”

And thus, when my kids wanted to go into the backyard to play—it was a warm, sunny morning, one of our first after, like, eight straight months of winter—I went right along with them.

I do remember thinking to myself: Wow, it sure is quiet out here. But it struck me as far-fetched to the point of absurdity to suppose that a disturbed 19-year-old surrounded by an army of law enforcement officials would find his way to our neighborhood, let alone our home.

I’m sure such a scenario would have felt far more plausible if I’d been watching the images of bloody bodies and flashing lights and pale perpetrators, or listening to the grave updates and intonations issued by the anchors. But my head just wasn’t in that particular tunnel.

So there was our daughter, picking a bouquet of early spring flowers, our son painting the flagstones in a bright paste composed of glitter chalk and hose water.

At one point I did poke my head inside to ask my wife if she thought it was cool for the kids to hang out in the driveway. She paused for a moment then said, “Yeah. Let’s not give in to the whole paranoia thing.”

She was busy packing for a family trip to her parents’ house, down in Connecticut. By mid-morning we were on the road. As we headed out of town, we saw a number of police cars whiz past us, and one armored vehicle. Thus did we emerge from lockdown, unscathed. The end.

If this account makes me sound like a callous person, or worse yet an irresponsible parent, let me reiterate: People have every right to feel frightened and upset when bombs go off in public places. Law enforcement officials have an obligation to keep us safe, and reporters to cover the story.

But a short-lived and righteous hysteria doesn’t humanize us over the long haul. It only makes us a more attractive target to the next set of murderous madmen, whose raison d’etre is to inflict mass panic.

I refuse to beat my chest over a grief that belongs to others, or shout about how terrorists messed with the wrong city. I find no virtue in braying over the capture of a teenager whose toxic grievances, and misguided loyalties, led to such senseless ruin. It is sad, all of it.

The greater sadness for me is that America feels increasingly like a nation united by spectacles of atrocity. We pay attention, and open our hearts, only when violence of a random and gaudy enough variety strikes. But it shouldn’t take such calamity to awaken our decency, nor our devotion to causes of genuine moral progress. That, frankly, should be the price of our citizenship.