It took 18 years to track down and capture Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber. Last week, it took just four days to find the two men who set off bombs at the Boston Marathon. Most of us went along on the manhunt, at least virtually. Three people died in the initial explosions, and dozens were injured. Who can say what the trauma is to the rest of Boston, caught in the crossfire of violence, and to us, watching from our media outposts?
The scenario played out like a bad movie on fast-forward. Scenes of terrorist bombings and mass shootings now have their own template. The horrific event occurs without warning, as it did in Columbine or Aurora or Newtown. News alerts push into our emails and texts and TV programs. In an instant, our attention is pinned fast to the moment. We tune in to the unfolding news and tune out of our lives. We are in audience mode.
We see wrenching photographs of destruction and people in pain. We see devastating clips of children just before they are killed — as we eat our lunch or drive the carpool or pick up milk. Reporters rush to schools and hospitals to get the eyewitness accounts. Stupid questions abound. Inane comments follow.
“What did you think when you couldn’t find your son at the finish line?”
“Did he act suspicious in high school?”
“Do you expect to run again?” (This to a young woman who isn’t sure she will walk again.)
“He was a nice, sociable” guy, one schoolmate said of the man who packed a bunch of pressure cookers with nails, ball bearings and explosives and set them off at Boston’s showcase event.
More stock footage: The president flies into town. He offers comforting and inspiring words. He promises to see that justice is done. He reminds a wounded city that it has grit and it will heal.
Sadly, we have seen all of this before; the curtain never comes down on the theater of public violence in America. Still, last week’s attack took a unique turn: It launched perhaps the most intense manhunt in America, an effort that shut down a major city, locking down transportation, businesses and schools. Even as the city stopped, however, events unfolded in a rapid-fire sequence that began Thursday night, when the FBI released photos of the suspects.