Boston Marathon bombings

Beware the overzealous response to acts of terrorism

Philip Cunningham follows the disconcerting hunt for Boston bombers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 April, 2013, 3:03am

To follow the drama of the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers online through Twitter, Reddit, television news, police scanners and newspaper updates was to be inundated with an abundance of almost real-time information. Anyone with a computer and internet access could get a virtual view of events, blow by blow, and connect the dots, rightly or wrongly, along the way. To follow the tweets of Watertown eyewitnesses, in particular, was to be thrust into a front-row seat of a real-life movie of guns popping in the dark and bodies falling, police cars racing and bystanders mistakenly apprehended.

As the manhunt dragged on and anger and angst mounted, there were inevitable media gaffes, verbal lynchings, anti-immigration narratives being inappropriately raised and, worst of all, rash judgments assigning guilt to innocents. Twitter was fast, and fairly accurate when sourced to people on the scene, but careless headlines and crowd-sourced speculation about guilt could have led to real-life harm.

Watching TV with a computer in lap and police scanner reports blaring in the headphones, I found myself thinking of an epic horror film about the nature of evil and society's sometimes vile response to evil.

M, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Peter Lorre, was first released in Germany in 1931. It is a riveting crime drama about a heinous criminal and the overwrought manhunt that brings him down. It examines both natural desire for vigilante justice and some of the unnatural and inadvertent consequences of a bumbling official response as public anger is unleashed. It shows a man who commits beastly crimes get his just desserts as he is hunted down like a beast. It is a haunting film, set in the Weimar Republic's roaring 20s and it speaks to contemporary America in several ways.

The movie entertains and discomforts in equal measure, while also raising critical social issues. Part of the film's resonance with recent events is the central focus on a manhunt for a despicable criminal, who has no redeeming features other than having been born human, and yet by the end of the film the viewer has at least a flicker of feeling for the perpetrator while being filled with dread and foreboding about society's lockstep direction.

Perusing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's Twitter account is to be uncomfortably reminded that the "monster" who placed a bomb next to a child and other innocents was in many other respects a normal American teenager who liked to tweet about girls, cars, TV shows, video games, burgers and reluctance to get a haircut. One needn't like him, but one cannot deny the recognisably human attributes.

M also portrays a troubled society in transition, rocked by political bickering, ponderous bureaucracy and radical technological change. In 1920s Germany, sound was being introduced to cinema, the radio was finding its way into every living room and traditional media and culture were under siege, much as is the case today with the promise, and disconcerting disruptions, of the internet revolution.

Finally, the closure of a city and the sight of so many jack-booted men on the ground raises uncomfortable questions about overzealous manhunts, the disproportionate application of force, and the high-strung emotional excesses of the security state. What this means for US society is unclear, but the twisted militarism, pathological patriotism and groupthink of Germany in the 1930s was all too horrific to bear repeating. Terrorism is never good, but a trumped-up response to terror can be terrorising too.

Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and freelance writer