Michael Gerson: Filling the silence after the sirens

BY MICHAEL GERSON Published: April 20, 2013

The sense of helplessness that follows a tragedy is too much for us. So we fill the silence after the sirens with explanations. This is very human — until it becomes inhuman.

For some, the immediate response to events in Boston was the search for political advantage. At fault were “Islamist apologists,” or “Senate Republicans” blocking law enforcement nominees, or the sequester. “Don't talk to me about religion of peace,” fumed one, less-than-irenic religious figure. These commentators share not an ideology but a tendency: to search the headlines, and the obituaries, for affirmations of their pre-existing beliefs.

Those of us who comment for a living understand the temptation. When your blood is up, it is easy to cross lines that are difficult to uncross. Twitter is not a medium that encourages reflection.

But at the extremes, this form of politicization is hard to distinguish from desecration. It fashions the grief of others into a Hyde Park platform. “Too many people,” said Albert Camus, “now climb onto the cross merely to be seen from a greater distance, even if they have to trample somewhat on the one who has been there so long.”

The Boston bombings also set off a different sort of search — not for advantage but for facts and information. This is the occupation of law enforcement, as well as the calling of journalism.

Journalists often get a bad rap, and sometimes deserve it, particularly when their desire to be first supplants their desire to get it right. But the days following a crisis or tragedy serve as a reminder of their indispensability. In the initial coverage of the Boston attacks, commentary consisted mainly of premature speculation and warnings against premature speculation.

We have a media culture that emphasizes opinion in order to fill the 24-hour news cycle and occupy the infinite reaches of broadband. But when it mattered most in Boston, only actual journalism mattered. It is a reminder of the main direction that dependence runs: Facts without commentary lack context. Commentary without facts is a gelatinous mass of sentiment and prejudice.