I was sipping an overpriced americano in a small, aggressively hip coffee shop today when the news broke about the bombing at the Boston Marathon. I’d only meant to sit down for a few minutes, but ended spending over two hours there nursing my cold coffee and obsessively refreshing my Twitter feed.
Sitting there, I had the surreal experience of watching a disaster unfold in real time on social media. What made it even more strange was the fact that I was surrounded by people who had no idea what was happening. Two girls across from me discussed their upcoming Vipassana retreat and had a passive aggressive competition about their current meditation practices. A girl next to me was reading The Feminist Porn Book and occasionally making furious notes in her Moleskine. A young boy and his grandmother seated on my other side tried to figure out his math homework.
Everyone was totally oblivious to the fact that someone was apparently trying to blow Boston sky-high.
I wanted to lean over and poke the Feminist Porn girl and tell her what was happening, because I was suddenly desperate to have a real-life, non-internet conversation about this. It felt so lonely to be the only one in that coffee shop currently living in a world where people were detonating bombs at maybe the most famous marathon in America. But that seemed like it might be a weird thing to do, and anyway, she seemed really happy to be sitting there, alternately reading and scrawling. I didn’t want to be the one to ruin the Feminist Porn girl’s day, and anyway, she’d learn about Boston soon enough.
What happened today in that coffee shop was eerily similar to my experience on September 11th. I was in my first year at Dalhousie, and I’d gone to the Howe Hall student lounge between classes. There, on an oversized tv screen, a crowd of people were watching airplanes fly into buildings.
At first I thought it must be a movie, but then I realized that they were showing the same scene over and over.
“Is this a joke?” I wondered aloud. “It’s a joke, right?”
“No,” said the girl next to me. “Someone’s destroying America and it’s about fucking time.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I turned away and walked dazedly to my next class.
I figured out pretty quickly that no one there knew what was happening in New York. Everyone was laughing and chattering about their most recent drunken exploits, or their upcoming drunken exploits, or else how they were going to get money for more drunken exploits. It was as if I’d slipped into an alternate universe, one where no one was jumping out of skyscrapers because they knew they were going to die anyway and they didn’t want to wait until the fire made its way up to them.
I sidled up to one girl and whispered to her that someone had just flown a plane into the World Trade Centre. She just looked at me blankly, said, “Really?” then turned and started a new conversation with someone else.
The thing about me is that I like to do things. When stuff like this happens, I get all jittery and weird, like I need to be doing something concrete, something real, something right now to help whoever is hurt. It was, in fact, kind of lucky that I was in Halifax on September, because there was actually a ton of stuff, helpful stuff, that I was able to do in the wake of the disaster.
After the towers were hit, all of the overseas flights headed for the no-fly zone were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, and Halifax. The tightly-knit community on our small peninsula suddenly swelled by 8,000 people. The city needed to set up adequate food and shelter, and fast.
Naturally, when trying to find a large, unpaid work force, Halifax immediately thought of its student population. Those of us in residence were recruited to help out in various ways, from collecting donations from local businesses to cooking, setting up house and otherwise caring for our unexpected guests.
Because my residence, Gerard Hall, was attached to the abandoned (read: terrifying and haunted) Old Halifax Infirmary, my friends and I were sent to retrieve the stacks and stacks of hospital mattresses that were left there. I would later revisit the Old Infirmary again with my friend Ali, who would break in so that she could skateboard up and down its smooth, ghostly halls.
Later we were taken by bus out to the Exhibition Ground, where we handed out toiletries, blankets and toys to people who spoke barely any English. Many of them had no idea where they were, and had never, in fact, heard of Halifax. Everyone was very subdued, very still – even the babies were quiet. No one was upset at having to sleep on the concrete floor of a building that normally housed horses; mostly everyone was just happy to be alive.
There was this sort of sense that we were all in this together, and that if we could just keep being nice to each other, we could stop bad things like this from happening ever again.
There was also this sense that if we could all just keep moving, if we could keep doing helpful, constructive things, we wouldn’t have to think about what all this violence and hatred meant.
In the wake of the bombing today, I’ve been trying to figure out ways to help. I want to be like those people I saw in the news footage who ran towards the destruction, not away from it. I want to do something, anything to stop me from feeling like a useless, voyeuristic bystander. So, with the input of a few friends, I’ve put together a list of things that we can all do, no matter where we are:
1. When you are sharing information about what’s happening in Boston, please take a minute to make sure that whatever you’re posting or re-tweeting is accurate and correct. I’ve already seen a few fake twitter accounts promising to donate money to disaster relief for every retweet. I’ve also seen people posting sensationalized stuff that just isn’t true. Before you hit “retweet,” make sure that you are being a reliable conduit of facts for your friends and family.
2. Let the emergency response workers and law enforcement do their thing.Give them the chance to tell you what they need. They will let you know how you can best offer help. If you were at the finish line at the marathon, the FBI requests that you share photos or videos with investigators. Call 1-800-CALL-FBI (1-800-225-5324), prompt #3.
3. Use social media to let others know you are okay or to offer help. Google has created a Person Finder site for the Boston Marathon to help people locate their loved ones. There is also a Google Doc to help stranded visitors find a place to stay or for Boston residents to offer a couch or bed in their own home.
4. Give blood. Or if you can, donate money to theAmerican Red Cross, which is the organization that handles most blood donations in the United States. If the blood bank is all booked up (the Red Cross noted yesterday they were not immediately in need of blood donors), make an appointment to make a donation in a few weeks’ time, when the huge supply they have from people initially responding to the disaster has run out.
5. Look for small but vital local organizations that serve members of the population who might not receive help from larger aid organizations. Look for shelters that need blankets and clothing, or food banks that need non-perishable items. Stuff like that.
6. Refrain from speculating on the race, ethnicity or religion of the perpetrator. Don’t make this political. Keep any remarks about Obama’s response, your thoughts on immigration policy, and the current state of homeland defence to yourself. There will be plentyt of time to dissect these things in the coming days; for now, remember that everyone around you, Obama included, is frightened and upset.
7. Hug the shit out of your friends and family. Remind everyone how much you love them until they’re tired of hearing it. Then remind them again.
8. Take care of yourself. If reading about the bombing or looking at pictures starts to become too much, give yourself permission to take a break and get off social media for a while. The world’s not going to end if you’re not on Twitter.
9. Give everyone else a break. They’re having a hard time too. Remember that everyone mourns or deals with stress in different ways.
10. Eat some chocolate. Read this article. Then read this. Remind yourself of how many legitimately good, caring people are out there. Remember the adversity that the human spirit is capable of overcoming, and remind yourself that, even after something like this, we will rebuild. We have to.
I love you guys.