A week of chaos, horror and hope
Moment after nail-biting moment, the events shoved us through a week that felt like an unremitting series of tragedies. Deadly bombs. Poison letters. A town shattered by a colossal explosion. A violent manhunt that paralyzed a major city, emptying streets of people and filling them with heavily armed police and piercing sirens.
Amid the chaos came an emotional Senate gun control vote that inflamed American divisions and evoked memories of the Newtown massacre. And through it all, torrential rain pushed the Mississippi River toward flood levels.
“All in all it’s been a tough week,” President Barack Obama said Friday night. “But we’ve seen the character of our country once more.”
America was rocked last week, in rare and frightening ways. We are only beginning to make sense of a series of events that moved so fast, so furiously as to almost defy attempts to figure them out. But beneath the pain, as the weekend arrived, horror was counteracted by hope.
“We inhabit a mysterious world,” Rev. Roberto Miranda said at a prayer service for the Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people, inflicted life-changing injuries on scores more and shook the sense of security that has slowly returned to America since 9/11.
“The dilemma of evil is that even as it carries out its dark, sinister work,” Miranda said, “it always ends up strengthening good.”
That evil arrived Monday when twin bombs exploded near the finish line of the marathon. Not since 9/11 had terror struck so close to home. Although the scale of the Boston attack was far smaller than the destruction of the World Trade Center, a dozen years’ worth of modern media evolution made it reverberate in inescapable ways.
In 2001, we could walk away from our televisions. In 2013, bad news follows us everywhere. It’s on our computers at work and home, on our phones when we call our loved ones, on social media when we talk to our friends.
“There’s no place to run, no place to hide,” said Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at California State University in Los Angeles. “It’s like perpetual shock. There’s no off button. That’s relatively unprecedented. We’re going to have to pay the price for that.”
“We’re dealing with future shock on a daily basis,” Fischoff said.
Steffen Kaplan, a social media specialist in New Jersey, tried his best to protect his young son from the madness. His television stayed off. He browsed the Internet with caution. But reality finally intruded at a local pizzeria, where a TV was playing images of the injured in Boston.
“What’s going on?” his son asked. “Nothing,” Kaplan replied. “That’s just a movie.”
Kaplan fears the world his son will inherit. To cope, “I rely on faith in humanity,” he said. “If we raise our children correctly, somehow, some way, humanity will prevail.”
But the present remains difficult, Kaplan said. “It seems to be a spiral of things happening one after the other. It can be inundating on your senses.”
The downward spiral steepened Tuesday morning. As authorities in Boston searched for leads, and the nation debated whether the perpetrators were terrorists or a different type of killer, congressional leaders said a letter containing the poison ricin had been mailed to Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi.
It touched off memories of the jumbled days after 9/11, when letters containing anthrax were sent to politicians and media organizations..
On Wednesday, the Secret Service said it had intercepted a ricin letter mailed to Obama. Tensions immediately rose in Washington, with a half-dozen suspicious packages reported and parts of the Capitol complex shut down. On Wednesday evening, a suspect was arrested in Mississippi.
“I think it’s fair to say this entire week we’ve been in pretty direct confrontation with evil,” Secretary of State John Kerry said.
All this happened as the Senate, with high feelings on both sides, voted down legislation that would have banned assault weapons and expanded background checks of gun buyers. The measures, sought for decades, only became possible after 20 children and six others were gunned down at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Events in Washington can magnify the sense of chaos, said Fischoff, the psychologist. “Most of our institutions that we use to stabilize ourselves and our country are damaged, crippled,” he said. “What you’re having is a kind of emotional, cognitive anarchy.”
Late Wednesday night, reports emerged of an explosion outside Waco, Texas. As Thursday dawned, the magnitude became clear. A fertilizer plant had blown up with such force that it registered as an earthquake and wrecked homes, apartments, a school and a nursing home. As of Saturday morning, 14 people were dead.