Truths emerge from tragedies

Monday seems a long time ago.

It's been barely a week, but a long week, a string of days that came with a cascade of calamity.

First, on Monday, the deadly bombs at the Boston Marathon.

Then an even deadlier explosion at a fertilizer plant in a small Texas town.

Then floods around Chicago, with homes inundated, cars swallowed, people stranded, lifetimes of belongings lost.

On Friday we woke up to a manhunt in Boston and a major American city on lockdown.

A long week. It prompted a few thoughts:

One: Targeted mass violence — bombs at a marathon — is more frightening than any other kind of violence.

It's more frightening, on a grand public scale, than the violence that goes on in certain Chicago neighborhoods every day. It's scarier than horrific accidents and the damage inflicted by nature.

It leaves an impression that we're all at great risk of evil all the time, though in this country we're lucky that we're not.

Two: But death is always near.

It's not always imminent, but, as catastrophes of any kind make clear, it's always in the wings. Appreciate the day.

Three: Just because it looks like a fact doesn't mean it is.

Since the invention of speech, people have mistaken rumor for fact and happily spread the noise. Since the invention of mass media, and now social media, phony facts travel at the speed of a keystroke.

How many times do we have to learn: Be wary of the "facts" you hear in the first few hours, or days, after a catastrophe, particularly one labeled "terrorism." Gathering facts is a complex business. It takes time. Mistakes will be made. Don't aid and abet the errors.

Four: Facts are not explanations.

For example, the fact that the two brothers suspected in the Boston bombings have ties to Chechnya, which is predominantly Muslim, doesn't, by itself, explain anything. Neither does the fact that they're immigrants.

And yet some people leapt from those facts to elaborate theories involving organized Islamic terrorists and problems with American immigration law.

It's natural to want to stitch facts together into a story, fast, especially when we're scared. This tendency is called "terror management."

According to terror management theory (that's a social science term), when we're reminded of our own deaths, we wrap ourselves in cultural or religious beliefs as a form of protection, organizing the facts to suit our prefabricated notions.

Five: Skin color is not an explanation.

Skin color is one way we categorize people, especially when we feel threatened. Putting people into color boxes based on prefab notions helps contain our fear.

See "terror management" above.

Skin color sometimes correlates to particular criminal behavior, but it's not a cause of crime. It may be worth mentioning if it helps identify a suspect or dispel unfounded theories about who committed a specific crime.

But CNN's John King did neither when he said one of the Boston suspects was "dark-skinned," a description that fuels prejudice and wouldn't have been relevant even if it were true, which it wasn't.

Six: Catastrophe always provides a lesson in geography and history.

Where is Chechnya? Where is Cambridge relative to Boston? Where is West, Texas? Where exactly is suburban Lisle?

A lot of people got a crash course last week.

Seven: One person's heartbreak is someone else's distant news.

If your home was flooded last week, you had less time to dwell on the fear and loss in Boston or Texas. That's all right. None of us can absorb everyone else's heartache all the time. We shouldn't feel we have to.

Eight: People are mysteries.

Smart, friendly, sweet. A heart of gold.

That's how friends and associates, seemingly unanimously, have described Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old taken into custody Friday night nearly a day after his older brother, Tamerlan, was killed in a shootout with police.

Because the brothers are suspected of planting bombs at the Boston Marathon, some people don't want to hear either of them humanized. But as one of Dzhokhar's friends said: Refusing to hear that he was a good guy is to refuse to hear the facts.

Nine: Everything that happened last week will look slightly different this week.

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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