Times Square on New Year’s Eve has always seemed a bit too claustrophobic for me. How can anyone enjoy themselves in such a giant crowd? What’s the attraction? The image of 26,000 runners heading off together seemed similar–like pedestrian rush-hour. I can’t even shop at the mall at Christmas time.
One of the pivotal scenes in Gone with the Wind follows Rhett Butler’s ominous words, “In a town called Gettysburg.” The scene shifts to a giant crowd gathering at the Atlanta railroad station’s telegraph office to get the long casualty lists arriving from Pennsylvania.
Scarlett reads down to the “W’s” then is crying tears of relief that her beloved Ashley isn’t on the list. Many grieving families clutched the sheets with their sons’ names as the only connection they had left.
Monday at work, when my phone flashed the quick message “Two explosions at finish line of Boston Marathon,” I immediately scanned through friends in Massachusetts and went right to Facebook. Even before I could get to the “Friends” list, I was already seeing the responses of dozens of people in the news feed.
Within twenty minutes, my mom posted that our friend Steve had finished the marathon and witnessed the explosion and was unhurt. I went to his page and read his comments, rolling down the screen like a time-traveler to the post that occurred prior to the explosion.
This desire to exist, even vicariously on a smartphone, for one more moment in that person’s happiness before a tragedy reminded me of the Atlanta citizen holding that casualty list. After my father’s death, when we were all at the cottage together, I had to flip through the journal to find his handwriting at the time of his last visit; it made him alive again.
There are certain events that we need to share. My grandparents could tell you whom they were with when Pearl Harbor was attacked. My parents recalled November 22, 1963 vividly–my mom was typing at work and heard the news on the radio and started dictation of the report as she heard it–she wanted to capture that moment to share later with others.
I can remember being in the dining hall at college when the Challenger exploded and teaching my second hour when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Each of those 30 students is frozen in my mind–where they were sitting and what they said.
It’s instinctual that when one of our species reacts, we all pay attention immediately–if for no other reason than safety. A friend told me that she knew something was wrong at the store when she saw more people than usual who had stopped and were staring at their phones. She went to Twitter and saw it immediately, the Newtown massacre. By the time 24 hours had passed, CNN had to correct itself five times–no the mother wasn’t a teacher at the school; it wasn’t the brother; the father was still alive–in another state; the boy didn’t go to Sandyhook as a child. With the news media competing with Facebook and Twitter for information distribution, it’s react first–ask questions later.
FDR. mastered the “Fireside Chat” and took advantage of a forced intimacy that the invention of radio created. Like a campfire, everyone stares into the light and listens to stories that draws them together. The attack of Pearl Harbor was shared by a nation as they listened not to the bombing but to the president’s speech the following day. Their fear drew them together.
When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, television news was truly born. Many recall Walter Cronkite wiping away a tear and seeing Lee Harvey Oswald executed live. Television stores became news kiosks. Because nobody could wait for a radio report or newspaper story to be typed.
As I look at the faces of these store workers and shoppers from 50 years ago, I realize it is the same dazed expression that I saw this morning at work.
This department store manager didn’t know his electronics section was going to become a wake–a forum for shared grief. Certainly Mark Zuckerberg didn’t grasp that his invention in 2004 was going to serve as a cathartic clearing house for emotional release.
When I nearly convince myself that my presence at a crowded funeral home or a quick visit to the hospital won’t really matter I think of our need to not be alone. And when someone strikes against this safety in numbers–most sadly right at a finish line’s celebration we see this question all over the news, talk radio, Twitter and Facebook: ”How could someone actually do something like this?”
The answer is most likely found in the terror of extreme isolation and loneliness–that the “fear itself” that FDR described in the middle of Great Depression is truly our greatest enemy.
And as silly or fluffy as social media can seem, it can sometimes help us feel that we are part of a “friends list” that at does believe in in fairness, morality–or, if nothing else, a little comfort.