Tuned In

Boston Manhunt: Scrambling, Waiting, and Digging for Meaning on a Surreal Media Day

Somehow, in years of post-9/11 terrorist fiction, no one had created a narrative for the American-immigrant, high-school-athlete, Eminem-quoting mass-terrorism suspect.

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Julio Cortez / AP

Officials wearing tactical gear search an apartment building in Watertown, Mass. on April 19, 2013.

If, like me, you made the mistake of going to bed at a reasonable hour Eastern time, you woke up to a totally different Boston-bombing story. Thursday night, there were a couple fuzzy pictures of suspects and no clear idea when the case might break. By morning—after a convenience-store robbery, a carjacking, a chase, explosives hurled from a car, and a shootout that killed a police officer—one suspect was dead and the other, his younger brother, was on the run. (All this while self-deputized sleuths online briefly, loudly, fingered the wrong guy in the case.)

And the drama was just getting started. As I write this, mid-afternoon on Friday, the story has gone through so many turns that it seems impossible to sum them all up, but: Boston was essentially shut down. Thousands of police swarmed the city, Blackhawk helicopters flew over an American suburb, and a phalanx of agents surrounded a house possibly holding a suspect.

All this unfolded live on screen, in what had to be one of the most surreal media days in memory. A secondary swarm of TV cameras followed the police, then were pushed back as authorities ringed the house with rifles pointed. In what looked like scenes from 24–down to the jostling handheld camera–reporters negotiated on-air with their producers and with cops, trying to guide the former’s attention while heeding the latter’s instructions.

A camera for New York‘s channel 11 shot footage, as if in a war zone, from behind the bumper of a parked car. NBC‘s Kerry Sanders said, “just told us that if we knew what was going on, we wouldn’t be standing here right now.” Something big was about to go down, though we didn’t know what it was.

And then it didn’t. As the hours rolled on, the intense rush of events turned into a surreal holding pattern: networks in special coverage, Boston in lockdown, but no arrest or showdown. Left with a huge story but few developments, news channels turned to parsing over information about the suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Part of what was going on, it seemed, was people trying to make meaning from an unfolding story that didn’t fit any of the neat boxes people prepared to hold it in. The suspects were foreign-born US residents (one a naturalized citizen) of Chechen Muslim background. The elder brother was a Golden Gloves boxer; the younger was remembered from middle and high school as “a normal American kid,” as his former wrestling coach put it to CNN’s Jake Tapper.

So was this “domestic” or “international”? A “lone wolf” or a “cell”? “Craziness” or “extremism”? “Personal” or “ideological”? None of the ready “Why?” narratives quite fit, and what was missing, so far, in all the interviews of friends, teammates, teachers, was a telltale sign of anger or radicalization. Even the history of Chechen terrorism, largely against Russian targets, didn’t map onto a bombing of an American marathon. So reporters scoured their social-media history, and tried to read meaning into, say, Dzhokhar’s tweeting lines from “Forgot About Dre” on his apparent Twitter account.

Somehow, in years of post-9/11 terrorist fiction, no one had created a narrative for the American-immigrant, high-school-athlete, weed-smoking, Eminem-quoting mass-terrorism suspect. Friday’s coverage–besides trying to keep up with a dramatic manhunt–seemed to be about trying to discover one.

One of the most dramatic scenes of the day happened several state lines away from the crime scene, in Maryland, as reporters interviewed the uncle of the two suspects, Ruslan Tsarni. It was an amazing, raw display of anger and candor, as Tsarni raged against his nephews for “being losers” who shamed his family, their culture and their religion. “I teach my children: this is the ideal microworld in the entire world!” he shouted to the cameras. “I respect this country! I love this country!”

There was not much that seemed “ideal” on this Friday, but “microworld” seemed a perfect description of the America we were seeing: a place where the peoples of the world converge, bringing their ambitions and problems, hopes and pathologies, a place far more complicated than our prepackaged conceptions of “domestic” versus “international” terrorism, more surreal than anyone’s guesses as to how this horrible story would resolve itself. One too strange and baroque to be captured by the anchor and analysts’ attempts at sense-making.

A microworld, maybe, but still too big to grasp.