The sense of helplessness that follows a tragedy is too much for us. So we fill the silence after the sirens with explanations. This is very human — until it becomes inhuman.
For some, the immediate response to events in Boston was the search for political advantage. At fault were “Islamist apologists,” or “Senate Republicans” blocking law enforcement nominees, or the sequester. “Don’t talk to me about religion of peace,” fumed one, less-than-irenic religious figure. These commentators share not an ideology but a tendency: to search the headlines, and the obituaries, for affirmations of their pre-existing beliefs.
Those of us who comment for a living understand the temptation. When your blood is up, it is easy to cross lines that are difficult to uncross. Twitter is not a medium that encourages reflection.
But at the extremes, this form of politicization is hard to distinguish from desecration. It fashions the grief of others into a Hyde Park platform. “Too many people,” said Albert Camus, “now climb onto the cross merely to be seen from a greater distance, even if they have to trample somewhat on the one who has been there so long.”
The Boston bombings also set off a different sort of search — not for advantage but for facts and information. This is the occupation of law enforcement, as well as the calling of journalism.
Journalists often get a bad rap, and sometimes deserve it, particularly when their desire to be first supplants their desire to get it right. But the days following a crisis or tragedy serve as a reminder of their indispensability. In the initial coverage of the Boston attacks, commentary consisted mainly of premature speculation and warnings against premature speculation. The work of a fine, methodical reporter — say Pete Williams of NBC — contributed more than the entire cast of his company’s cable network.
We have a media culture that emphasizes opinion in order to fill the 24-hour news cycle and occupy the infinite reaches of broadband. But when it mattered most in Boston, only actual journalism mattered. It is a reminder of the main direction that dependence runs: Facts without commentary lack context. Commentary without facts is a gelatinous mass of sentiment and prejudice.
This is the reason that journalism is a moral enterprise (though some who practice it would probably run screaming from the newsroom at that adjective). Truth really does set us free. The discernment of a common set of facts is the only basis for constructive, democratic disagreement. Otherwise, we inhabit fundamentally incommensurable ideological worlds, and power becomes the only way to choose among them. Undermine journalism as a profession and a vocation — which we seem in the process of doing — and something essential is lost.
Tragedy also leads to another type of search, the search for meaning in cruel and apparently random events.
One of the most terrible and revealing moments of the recent bombings was reported in The Boston Globe. When a relative of Martin Richard first heard the general news that a child had been killed, she tried to imagine the family’s pain. “Then I found out we were the family,” she said.
To those most closely affected — those, for example, who held a child for eight years and will not again — the drawing of life lessons by outsiders will seem trivial or callous.
But other families will feel the shock of familiarity — recalling a school shooting, a hospital cancer ward or a sudden accident. A tragedy makes communal what most of us face in isolation — a loss that can’t be reconciled with justice. The news breaks, and we stare into the abyss together.
It is true, even if trivial, that tragedy, loss and nobility are often knit in the same fabric. And many in this circumstance turn to faith, not out of arrogant certainty (which life usually breaks in one way or another) but out of fear of the terrible alternative: that the innocent suffer and the universe is indifferent.
Such faith is not the opposite of doubt, but haunted by it and inseparable from it. It is the cry to an absent God.
We spend most of our days in denial, until the day it is no longer possible. The options are relatively simple: Either death is final, or love is final.
“You wanted justice, didn’t you?” says J.B.’s wife in Archibald MacLeish’s play. “There isn’t any. ... Only love.”Michael Gerson, who served as head speechwriter and policy adviser for George W. Bush from 1999 until 2006, is a Washington Post columnist. Email him at michaelgerson@ washpost.com.