The Terror

A few months ago following the Newtown shooting, I posted a minor piece about it. It turns out I was perfectly accurate: legislation that was sparked by it failed in the face of the gun lobby, the public panic faded, and everyone walked away disappointed. I also referenced a piece in the Economist about America’s fascination with “self-aggrandising displays of grief over events that did not actually happen to us”.

I bring this up now because a similar sort of reaction happened over the Boston Marathon affair. It seemed there was a sort of fetishistic need to involve oneself, however superficially, that permeated public reaction. A hastily-assembled SubReddit got together to go over photos and accuse the wrong man, and 4chan did similarly (yet were more effective). But it went down to even more superficial levels. I’m forced to relay an anecdote from my company.

Not long after the events my department decided to do a sort of team building/training exercise. One of the exercises set before us was to break into groups and discuss someone in our work environment that we’ve seen display leadership principle X and talk about how that affected us.

One individual in the group I was in immediately rejected the “in our work environment” piece and decided to direct us towards a sort of idolization of the unnamed, unspecified responders to the bombing victims. Another in the group jumped on this immediately and the two sat breathlessly hashing out a very, very flimsy explanation of how the vast sea of unnamed nobodies, who may or may not have actually done anything at all, were leaders in style of principle X because of this that and the other.

They laughed it off when I pointed out that, based on their definitions, the bombers themselves did a better job of exemplifying the principle in question.

Regardless, at the end each of the groups had to present their options. We were the only ones to go this route. I did notice that unlike the other groups, our choice had the sort of accidental benefit of discouraging the criticisms and suggestions that the other teams had heard, leading the audience instead to try to leap in with their own justifications on our behalf… maybe Bush really knew what he was doing throwing 9/11 around incessantly. 

But as all this was going down I had to stop taking notes on the training at hand so that I could instead scribble notes and ideas about this odd sort of mass psychology following a tragedy. One of these people was absolutely desperate to tie it to herself (“well I ran a 5k once and I have to say that…”, “I was going to do another fun run in a couple weeks but now I’m worried…”).

What is it about these things? After the Titanic disaster were random people talking about their fear of icebergs even though they’d never been on a boat? I’m genuinely curious, to be honest. Is this a part of human nature or is this some sort of mass-psychological shift that’s happened in the past 20 years or so?