Tragedy is the handmaiden of irony — those dark coincidences that make us shake our heads in wonder. Even after all the drama of this past week, they haunt us. What if he had arrived 10 minutes earlier? What if she had called in sick? Why this victim, why that survivor? At the Marathon, guests of honor at the finish line included parents of the shooting victims in Newtown, there to be honored and perhaps enjoy a brief respite from the trauma of senseless violence. We can only shake our heads at the surreal cruelty.
Last Monday evening I was scheduled to moderate a discussion at the John F. Kennedy Library with journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger. He was going to screen a new documentary about the life of his friend Tim Hetherington, the British war photographer who was killed in an explosion in Misurata, Libya, in 2011. We would watch the documentary “Which Way is the Front Line From Here?” and then discuss a foundation Junger has established to pay for first-aid training for the increasing numbers of freelance journalists reporting from global conflict areas. Junger believes Hetherington, who was hit by shrapnel and bled to death, could have lived had his colleagues known how to tie a tourniquet.
In the hour between the bombing and the library’s official cancellation of the Junger event, the questions I had prepared became drenched in irony. I could hardly look at them. Why are journalists sent into war zones without proper training? What is it that drives them to put themselves in harm’s way? Hetherington considered himself a humanitarian as much as a reporter; where is the line between helping people in distress and getting the story? When can it be crossed?
The awful irony, of course, was that the war zone was right in Copley Square, where reporters as well as runners, cheering crowds, students, and children — innocents all — were very much in harm’s way. The Globe’s photographer John Tlumacki described having to take off his shoes because they were covered in blood. Amateur photographers and witnesses with cellphones have images of the chaos that police will pore over, like something out of the Arab Spring. And they probably also have images they will never show anyone.
The dead were victims of improvised bombs, just like in Misurata. The wounded lost limbs and suffered burns, and some will sustain hearing loss or brain injuries, just like in Iraq or Afghanistan. Scores of people were changed utterly; outstanding medicine saved their lives, but they will need years of rehabilitation, to say nothing of their emotional trauma.
The awful irony, of course, was that the war zone was right in Copley Square.
In one important way, though, the events of Monday were nothing like a war: Nobody volunteered to go into battle or record the savagery for news organizations back home. That’s what makes it terrorism. As disordered as today’s battlegrounds have become — rules of engagement are suspended; aid workers, diplomats, and journalists lose their protected status and often are directly targeted — the participants expect that people will be killed. Not so the happy crowds in the streets on a promising spring day.
The carnage in Boston is personal. But it is well to remember it is just a tiny fraction of what soldiers, civilians, and war correspondents around the world see every day. Of the 104 reporters and photographers killed on the job last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 22 were freelancers. Most were covering conflicts in their own countries.
The foundation Junger set up — Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, or RISC — offers three days of free first-aid training and equipment for freelance journalists preparing to cover wars or popular uprisings. With traditional news organizations closing their foreign bureaus, fewer reporters have the institutional resources to support them in their dangerous, vital work.
Junger found the intensity of war reporting “captivating,” even addictive, but decided to stop when Hetherington died. “I decided I’d had enough violence,’’ he said. It had become personal for him, too.
If strange, sad events like the Marathon attack make us more aware of others, if they make us catch our breath in recognition at the next overseas bombing or even at the continuing violence in other Boston neighborhoods, maybe there could be some grace in that.