There are some anniversaries that I wish I could forget. But Facebook will remind me. Or Google. Or MSNBC. Or The Chronicle. This Wednesday marks 12 years since the United States was rocked by four missiles, born from passenger aircraft, hijacked by al-Qaeda operatives and aimed at iconic American landmarks. Of course, I will never forget that day (I would hazard even those a generation my junior won’t either), so I certainly don’t feel like I need to be reminded. It will always be “too soon” to relive it. And though a solemn memorial service provides a deeply private moment to reflect and find strength as an individual, community and/or nation, the perennial media carousel of repeated footage and reprinted images from their archives represents nothing more than emotional abuse. It’s a graphic grab for ratings. Whether you knew one of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day, suffered health effects from the subsequent fallout or simply questioned the rebalancing of freedom versus security that followed, we were all affected.
Having been forbidden by my mother to spend the summer working as an EMT in Israel—it’s too dangerous, I was told—I had instead transferred to a college in New York City. Sept. 11, 2001: I woke up, as usual, with just enough time to quickly get dressed and trek across campus for my biochemistry lecture. A month shy of my 21st birthday, I specifically remember thinking, “Today is a totally normal day.” Neither the iPhone nor Twitter had been invented yet and, ignorant to what was occurring on the south portion of the island (we faced away from the window), my classmates and I went about our routine, following the professor’s etchings in chalk. It wasn’t until I ran into one of my fraternity brothers in the lobby afterwards that I learned the grim news. And he got it wrong, partially. Planes have crashed into the Pentagon and the White House, he said. I don’t even remember if he had mentioned the World Trade Center, as I had already walked off, thinking he was making a very sick joke and looking for a computer terminal to corroborate his claim. CNN.com confirmed what was known at the time. Terrorism, it went on to guess. I reached for a phone to call home and let my mother know I was alright. The lines were flooded, and it was nearly impossible to call out. The best I could do was change my dorm room voicemail message and hope that those calling me would hear it.
With subway service suspended (the WTC stop had caved in under the collapse of the towers) and bridges closed (for security), we were trapped on Manhattan. Even once public transport resumed and commercial jetliners began flying over the city again, it was a claustrophobic time to be a New Yorker. Fingers, too, had already started pointing, and for those seen as being of Arab origin (Sikhs in dastar were common targets) it was also a potentially dangerous time. Myself, I somehow ended up at MTV Studios in Midtown, wearing my own headgear—a yarmulke—in an unscripted post-9/11 PSA and pleading to an unblinking video camera that if our government carries out military retaliation, it’s against those responsible and not those just incorrectly blamed. Indeed, I was scared, and I felt helpless. Was anyone listening?
Nearly five months ago, a rush of helplessness washed over me again as I first learned about the Boston Marathon bombings on Facebook after class. On the outside this time, I tried calling from Durham to Boston to check up on friends and was answered only by pre-recorded messages stating my call could not go through. Immediately, social media became my primary news outlet, and traditional news agencies took to social media. Bloody images from the crime scene leaked out with complete disregard for the victims or their familiars. Kevin Ware’s spontaneous leg fracture during the NCAA tournament just a couple weeks prior had been self-censored by most news outlets, so why was it okay to capitalize on mass casualty?
To say, as a doctor, “I see this kind of gore every day” would be cliché. And a lie. But who would question me? Who had the time? In an effort to be the “first,” to “scoop” someone else, everyone from regular citizens to EMS officials to news networks themselves was posting and Tweeting rapidly—the facts be damned. The overwhelming flow of information and misinformation—especially during the search for the suspects—showed how social media allows everything to go viral, gnawing at our insecurities. The New York Post and social media outlet Reddit both published stories inaccurately showing “persons of interest,” even though they didn’t necessarily call them “suspects.” Whereas social media hadn’t been born yet for 9/11, by the Boston bombings, it was a raging, untamed, unruly teenager. Before, misinformation didn’t have the vacuum of cyberspace; now, any little rumor or idea is reposted to the masses. Before, we were bludgeoned until we were emotionally numb by media outlets’ fear-mongering; now, we seem to be doing it to ourselves. Social media is fine until there’s a disaster—then it goes haywire and can start doing some very real damage. At what point do we unplug and see the world through our own eyes?
Benjamin Silverberg is a second-year graduate student and practicing physician. His column runs every other Monday. Send Ben a message on Twitter @hobogeneous.