Unfolding Before Our Eyes

Observation does literally change how events unfold.

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Members of the FBI, State Police, Boston Police, Cambridge Police and other law enforcement agencies search for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings on April 19, 2013.

An event, the theory goes, is automatically changed simply by the fact that it is being observed. That has become increasingly evident with the advent of round-the-clock news, particularly as it relates to the coverage of wars and other crises. It can be helpful, even oddly comforting, for the public to see an event unfold in real time. But it can also hinder a strategy or investigation, while putting on authorities the added pressure of meeting what may be unrealistic expectation by an American public used to seeing crimes and international conflicts resolved neatly and justly in the space of an hour-long TV show or two-hour movie.

The concept is explained smartly in a research paper written by Maj. William G. Adamson, the concept is explained smartly. Says Adamson:

The media creates a surreal world to which governments, military forces, and nations must respond as though it were real. … Now the public gets enough immediate information to form opinions and make decisions of its own. Also, since global commercial television shows no partiality, the enemy has access to the same analyses and intelligence information. And, at a speed which compels political and military authorities to respond quicker and at a frequency with which they formerly never had to cope. Real-time news compresses the decision-cycle.

The combination of real-time visual imagery on television coupled with a public conditioned to film of bombs going down ventilator shafts has the public expecting perfection in war—which can never be perfect. This perception, and the media and telecommunications capabilities that helped create it, has the potential to affect significantly the future use of US military force.

[ See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Boston Marathon bombings.]

The same can be said about the tragic, yet still mesmerizing, events unfolding in Boston. But what is remarkable about the compulsive attention the media and the public are paying to the crisis is that this time, at least, outside involvement appears to be helping.

Perhaps there is a little too much assertiveness on the part of the media – the outlets that erroneously reported someone had been arrested early on, the TV correspondents who had to be pushed back from a crime scene area by police who surely had better things to do.

[ See Photos: Manhunt in Boston]

But as awful and frightening as this event is, the response by public authorities and much of the public has been remarkable. The work of law enforcement, combined with the help of spectators who offered up their cell phone videos and photos, helped police and FBI identify two suspects with stunning speed. The smart decisions by Gov. Deval Patrick and others to shut down the T and close university campuses turned out to be not just good judgment, but perhaps live-saving ones, since there was a report of an unexploded device near a subway station. And Bostonians – who fearlessly raced to attend to those injured during the Boston Marathon – appear to be largely following directives to stay indoors.

It’s unfair to expect law enforcement to provide instantaneous answers and to identify and apprehend suspects quickly. But authorities have been doing a superlative job anyway.