Thursday 18 April 2013

Boston Bombs

To BBC World Television News yesterday in the new Broadcasting House building, full of tourist parties and holidaying kids looking in wonder at the glass-caged journalists imprisoned within. Met by a lovely “greeter” with a big smile we got the lift down to the basement, which is where they always put the windowless studios. Waiting for the lift I told her my one BBC basement joke:  When Mae West's manager asked the journalist Gilbert Harding if he could try to sound a little sexier when he interviewed her on the radio, Harding replied:

'If, sir, I was endowed with the power of conveying unlimited sexual attraction through the potency of my voice, I would not be reduced to accepting a miserable pittance from the BBC for interviewing a faded female in a damp basement.'

The bombs in Boston were rightly leading the news, and I was there to comment on the psychological reactions. The story board put much emphasis on the speed with which “first responders” had acted to help the victims, as well as proper amounts of coverage of the horror of the bombing itself. Later there was a well-conducted, low key press conference in which the emergency services were praised, the city was rallied by its Mayor, the investigation explained by the FBI and the local Police chief, and the legal process explained by the appointed Attorney. It was an example of civic order, with clear evidence of pre-planning. In psychological terms they were showing leadership, outlining what should happen next, and identifying heroes. (The uniformed services hate that word: it suggests something other than them doing the job they were trained to do. Worse, it leads to random medals afterwards, which irritates the hell out of those who did their duty off camera). Of course, at that stage it was not possible to identify the Villains.

Disasters test the morality of the organising structure. In too many cities of the world the citizens do not trust their leaders to look after them, to ensure the safety of buildings, nor to invest relief monies honestly. The press conference gave every appearance of public servants explaining themselves honestly, and trying to inform, reassure and engage the public.  There were too many of them, but there are always too many agencies piling in after every disaster. With luck, they will keep talking and working together. After the King’s Cross fire in London in 1987 survivors reported that they had been contacted by at least 13 agencies. Turf wars are worth avoiding, as are pointless partial re-countings of horrific details as part of repeated official interviews.

Calling for all citizens to send in their photos of the event helps the Police, and also helps citizens feel that they are contributing something to this otherwise senseless event, over which no law abiding citizen was able to exert any control.

By next day the rumours were flourishing: suspects identified, suspects arrested, vital clues found, and so on. It is natural to pray that the villains will be found, and given their just deserts. Civil society is based on the Just World hypothesis. Much of the time the notion seems solid, but when it obviously fails there is a desperate wish to set the balance right as quickly as possible. However, catching bombers can take years. The Unabomber operated with impunity from 1978 to 1995 killing 3 and wounding 23. Making bombs is easy, catching bombers is hard.

Leaving the studio, she of the smile said: “Well, few interviewees stay as long as you did, so you must have said something worthwhile”.

Then back home through delicious sunny London, the innocent untroubled crowds on the street strolling with coats off, others sitting at pavement tables for coffee, all without tragedy, and the brick and stone of the old buildings glowing against the bright Spring sky.


  1. Like many others, I'm grateful that such easy-peasy terrorism happens so rarely. I'm also grateful that the terrorists are often dim and unimaginative. I've conceived of a scheme that would easily cause far more terror - you'll forgive me if I don't describe it. I'm thankful that They haven't thought of it yet. Yet.

  2. On a visit to NATO headquarters many years ago, a professor from Imperial said to the assembled scientists: "All of us can think of many ways of causing much more damage than these terrorists". Many heads nodded, but the psychologists in the group were discomforted, and intrigued. Nonetheless, we asked no questions, and hope that they could keep quiet about their schemes.