Life is always more simple and more complex than we think.
As I watched the events unfold in the Boston marathon bombing, I saw themes emerging. Patterns they had in common with other crises. I am referring to the people’s and media reactions after the initial event.
I got first aware of the bombing about three minutes after it happened. By then it still was called two explosions. I saw it as an RT tweet by a person I follow with an added comment along the lines of: “Let this not be true.”
Several seconds later I saw many more tweets along the lines of :”Oh my god, what happened?” and “What was that?”
The first response was a general looking up. People were trying to get information to figure out if the event was important, if they had to pay attention and if the initial event was only part of a bigger event. They wanted to find out if it concerned them. The main question was: “What happened?”
Then came news and gruesome pictures. People reacted to those in several different ways. One was the lamentation of willful destruction and the evil element within the human race. One was the immediate cry for help directed at a higher power. Another was immediate empathy for the victims. All these responses in the first ten minutes or so were very general and immediate.
We grasped what had happened and were shocked.
Then something shifted. The tribal instincts kicked in. People were wondering about runners and spectators from their area, or runners and spectators who were among their friends. The question went from “What happened?” to “Is my tribe okay?”. Whenever groups of people were accounted for, their friends and neighbors happily retweeted those news.
This was also the time when the first misinformation came out, because after the initial event, there was a vacuum of knowledge and people tried to fill it. A great discrepancy between news and confirmed news arose. Some of the not confirmed news turned out later to be simply wrong.
A little while later first responses to the event by people with their own strong agendas showed up. Invariably some of those turned out to be rather crass and uncalled for. The event was politicized less than half an hour after the initial blast. Within the soup of misinformation, speculation and agenda pushing the discussion changed from immediate shock to secondary outrage.
People were not only talking about the victims anymore. They were also talking about “who did this?” and “why was it done?” and “who had said what?” regarding the initial event. At this point some very ugly undertones entered the reaction, because some people were very recklessly playing the blame game.
After a few hours of that, we moved to confirmed news and press conferences to hear about initial details and reactions of the political leadership. People also calmed down somewhat and reminded each other to be unified. They pointed out the good deeds of their fellow human beings to keep their fear of evil away. Fred Rogers was quoted many times and the invariable hero stories surfaced. Invariable, because there is always a first responder or another ordinary person who rises to the occasion within a tragedy. This is how we are wired. Someone will help.
After that the media moved on to a new news cycle and we moved attention back to our own world and our own circles. We went back to ‘normal’.
Of course for the people who were directly affected by these events there was no focusing on other things. Their lives have changed forever in one split moment and for them there will always be a before and an after the bomb.
I think the patterns that I observed are all grounded within human nature. However, realizing them, it is also easy to see some of the obvious pitfalls they have. For example, filling the information vacuum with false news and speculation is not helping anyone. It would be great if we could skip this step. We want to know everything there is to know. Sometimes it takes a while though to make sure that what we know is really what happened. The best thing we can do here is wait.
Or if we look at the people who come forward after tragic events to push their own, oftentimes very unrelated agenda. We know they will show up, because they always do. They are part of the pattern. The best thing to do, would be to ignore them. However, we are so emotionally raw and upset from the first event that keeping calm and ignoring those voices is also one of the hardest things to do.
It might help in situations of crises to keep in mind that many of the complex reactions running through our minds are based in simple human needs. And maybe we can satisfy these needs by other means than those that are either harmful or ineffective. Or said differently, once you see the patterns, you can make informed decisions about wether or not you need to follow them to their extremes.