The media has moved smoothly into terrorism autopilot for the New York-New Jersey bombings: Law enforcement pundits, rhetorical bombast from politicians, the faux “breaking news” graphics of cable TV, man-on-the-street rank speculation and rampant conspiracy theories.
It’s reminiscent of much in recent years, especially to Janet Reitman, an investigative reporter and contributing editor at Rolling Stone. She wrote the magazine’s revealing, if controversial, 2013 profile of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The story examined in detail the life of the 23-year-old, who was sentenced to death for the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and wounded 264.
Her take constitutes both a primer on early comparisons one might make between the Boston tragedy and the latest drama and a huge cautionary note on what we don’t know and possibly errant early assumptions.
She lives in New York City and the first giant difference, it seems, is the divergent efficiency, even professionalism, of the New York City and Boston police departments.
“The reason I even wanted to do the Boston bomber case, other than the fact that he was a Rolling Stone character — the all-American teenager who became a terrorist — was this unbelievable spectacle of a crazy manhunt that seemed to just overwhelm the various law enforcement agencies involved. Then you find out that it did.”
Remember that image of Tsarnaev hiding in a boat, shot up and bloody? What were those law enforcement folks doing?
By comparison, what’s played out over the past 48 hours in New York and New Jersey is “the most low-stressed terrorist manhunt I have ever seen,” Reitman says. “Unfortunately, it may speak to the experience we have in New York…We may have a highly effective counter-terrorism unit within the NYPD that has been in place since the early 2000s. So the efficiency you have seen is radically different than what one saw in Boston.”
There is an interesting difference in communications methods, she notes: In Boston, the police posted a photo and the news broadcast it; in New York City, the police sent out a mass text message to the tri-state area with his name, age, height and weight.
Journalistically, the Boston case was “remarkable because there were these very recognizable figures, especially the younger brother,” says Reitman, whose work includes long takeouts on the Duke lacrosse scandal, Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, the Bradley Manning case and the book “Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion.” “Why would an extremely assimilated, all-American stoner kid decide to do this?”
For now, there’s the facile rhetoric, as there was in Boston, “with people throwing around the words ‘evil’ and ‘monster.’ People are tried and convicted before even charged.”
Unfortunately, that’s part of the post-9/11 climate and that is very dangerous, Reitman said.
“I do think due process is important,” she said. “Throwing around loaded terms is dangerous. But that’s the climate we’re living in and is similar to what we saw in the Boston bombing case.”
But what played out in Boston was pretty clear. There wasn’t much ambiguity about what happened that awful day. Now, it’s different, with multiple bombs in New Jersey and New York, perhaps made of differing materials.
“It’s surprising to me if it’s really only one person – though they’re now saying it might be,” said Reitman. “But it’s very early in the process. We don’t know enough and there are a ton of questions. In Boston, it was pretty clear, right away, these guys did it. The question was why.”
The people of Boston struck her as more “traumatized” than the average New Yorker appears to be. For sure, people died and many weren’t just injured, they were maimed. Rumors were rampant about where they brothers might be, whereas today the police have a suspect in custody.
The other difference: Back then, there were the beliefs proclaimed, in the media and elsewhere, about the brothers being part of a larger network, she notes. Perhaps they were part of a Boston terror cell. “None of that was true.”
In New York at the moment, “the reaction so far is that ‘we got him.’ But I’m also thinking that this is way more complicated. The facts are still emerging.”