No, it’s not a movie.
This is just what real life looks like now, fragmented and distorted through a million digital eyes.
But we still scrabble to put it into perspective. It has become commonplace in the past decade or so for witnesses to disaster, manmade or natural, to say that what they saw “looked just like a movie.” Meaning that what happened was so big, so outside their daily frame of reference, that the only way to take it in was by recourse to Hollywood.
This says more about what commercial entertainment is these days, and what we expect it to be, than about any reality it supposedly reflects. Civic events and monuments destroyed in bursts of mayhem, armadas of federal agents and local police deployed through city streets, high-speed chases and last-stand shoot-outs: These are images we can only fit into the organizing principles of the CGI-assisted fantasy media we consume. We know how they work. More importantly, we understand all the character motivations, and we know how they end.
Reality, of course, rarely plays by the rules, even if it sometimes looks like the visions streaming from our televisions and movie screens. And the conversations we now have online — or are they simultaneous monologues, conducted by Tweet and Facebook post? — only reflect our anxiety as we try to fit the messy unknown into the comforting structures of the stories we tell.
Which is to say that by midday Friday, our various screens were overflowing with information — confirmed, unconfirmed, completely bogus, who knew? — about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and the more we learned, the less we understood. We learned, perhaps, that Dzhokhar, 19, was a putatively normal kid who wrestled for Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, smoked a little weed, and wore a tux to his prom. We heard from sources of varying credibility that his older brother, Tamerlan, had gone to Bunker Hill Community College, was a boxer with Olympic hopes, had a “beautiful” girlfriend, had assaulted his girlfriend, was married, had a child.
We were told that the brothers were refugees of Chechen heritage, that Dzhokhar became a naturalized US citizen on Sept. 11, 2012. We learned their mother was arrested for shoplifting from Lord & Taylor in Natick. We saw what we were told could be Dzhokhar’s Twitter feed and his page at a Russian social media site. We saw what may have been Tamerlan’s YouTube account, with bookmarked terrorist videos that were subsequently removed. And was that really a photo of his corpse making the rounds on the Internet?
Welcome to the new cubism of public persona, where every new byte of fact and factoid adds to the mosaic while blurring the picture. Some of these links and images made it onto the official news outlets — which by and large behaved with admirable restraint — and more of them were swapped back and forth in the Babel of the Internet, where rumors flourished and proved hard to put down.
The portrait of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that emerged over the course of the day was of a mellow young man well-liked by everyone who knew him, not the hollow-eyed jihadist that fit the script. So the script changed: By the evening hours, when Dzhokhar was brought to bay in a backyard boat in Watertown, there seemed to be as many Tweeters who wanted him captured alive — for the answers he could provide, but also because he engendered in some a weird protectiveness — as those who wanted his pain to equal that of his victims.
Uncertainties unnerve us. Not knowing plain freaks us out. The hard cultural lesson of the Great Watertown Manhunt is that information is not the same as understanding, which is not a message people want to hear. You could hear that in the edgy Tweets from people wishing that Jack Bauer from “24” or even crazy Carrie from “Homeland” would parachute in to save the day — i.e., restore to this story the proper hero-vs.-villain structure.
You saw it in the way reporters and the blogosphere jumped to package the secondary “characters,” like the brothers’ righteously horrified uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, or their father, interviewed in Russia and bristling in defiance. (Or was it simple parental disbelief? And what to make of the aunt whose anger, conspiracy-mongering, blunt talk, and cryptic comments fit no known script and just reflected the reality of an extremely distraught woman?)
There were those who were upset that any time or bandwidth was wasted trying to parse the motives of a pair of murderers; that airtime should have gone to memorializing the three people killed in Monday’s bombing and MIT police officer Sean Collier, allegedly shot to death by the suspects late Thursday night. Noble sentiments, but their “story” is easy to understand. They were victims, innocents in the wrong place. We commemorate them by remembering their lives.
The fascination over the brothers Tsarnaev, by contrast, has to do with the refusal of the pieces to fit together. Was Tamerlan the disaffected radical and Dzhokhar the gullible kid brother? (That’s one story.) Were they part of a larger group? (That’s another.) How could two young men who seemed to have assimilated into this country so well have harbored such rage? Why couldn’t anyone tell? What does that say about all the other seemingly well-adjusted people out there — all the people you think you know?
This is why we secretly want Bruce Willis to show up with a Humvee and a machine gun, to sort it all out in time for the end credits. Punish the bad guys and save the good and, more important, reinforce which is which. Instead, we got a long day of ambiguity that ended not with a Hollywood bang but with standoff and surrender. The police and Feds were heroes, to be sure, but of patient procedure, not action fireworks. And by the evening hours, the story of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had become one in which shades of gray somehow darken into the blackest evil, and if we can’t tell where one leads into the other, how are we supposed to stop it from happening again?
No, this isn’t a movie. We just wish it were.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.