Thursday, April 16, 2015

Living and Dying on The Cell Phone


I posted this exactly two years ago, when the Boston Marathon bombing was still breaking news.  The point I make below--about cell phones putting the world in instant contact with crimes and tragedies as soon as they happen, has been in my thoughts a lot lately, as we see civilian videos of police shooting unarmed black men and there is even--it's rumored--a video someone took inside the Lufthansa plane as it hurtled to its destruction piloted by its German co-pilot in the French alps.  Because I'm, well, from an old, pre-digital generation, taking a video of my last moments of life with my cell phone is something that would never occur to me, but younger people, who grew up on line, seem to reach for their cell phones as soon as tragedy threatens.  And that's good, I think, because it keeps us all connected, in the best and worst of times.

Photo-Getty Images
April 16, 2013--Yesterday I was in the waiting room of a doctor’s office when the receptionist got a call from her son, 40 miles away at the end of the Boston Marathon.  “He says there were two explosions at the finish line,” she reported.  “I told him there’s nothing about it yet on the computer.”
         He’d called to tell her he was all right. When I got home from the doctor, I sat down in front of CNN and watched, transfixed, for the next six hours or so.  I knew a number of people—all much younger than myself—who might have been there.  My daughter who lives in San Francisco and used to live in Boston called me when she got out of work.  She and her friends were at the finish line of last year’s Marathon. I told her that the cell phone service was down in the area surrounding the blast.  Some TV announcers said this was due to overload..  Runners were calling family members and vice-versa.  Where were they?  What had just happened?  Were they okay? The fears mounted as the hours wore on without answers.
         Then some people on the TV began saying that phone service had been cut in the area of the attack to prevent more bombs from being detonated, in case the first two had been set off by a cell phone.   (It seems now, about 20 hours later, that the two bombs that went off were not that sophisticated, but rather primitive bombs using a “timing device” instead of cell phone signals.)
When their cell phone calls didn’t work, people my kids’ age turned to texting and Twitter and Facebook.  Last night, as I looked at my own Facebook page, I, and everybody else, read about nearly miraculous survivals—like one of my Pilates instructors, running for charity, who wrote:  “I finished right before it happened. Jon and 3 kids cleared out of grandstands with 3 minutes to spare. Thank you much.”
            Here’s another post I saw on Facebook last night, posted by one Lexi Gilligan, evidently a student at Tufts along with the blonde girl in the photo who was holding two thumbs up, named Jaymi Cohen.  What Lexi wrote under the photo was: “So, so thankful my best friend is doing well after surviving a bombing, hospitalization, tons of stitches and a FBI investigation—And she still looks beautiful after.  Love you Jay!”
          Then there’s the ghastly graphic photo, posted several times on Facebook, of the runner who’s had both legs blasted off below the knee, except for one long protruding bone.  (I didn’t post this photo—nor did any of the papers or magazines I saw ---because it’s so horrific—but it’s all over the internet.)  The desperately wounded runner is being pushed in a wheelchair by three good samaritans, who are at the same time putting pressure on his legs so he doesn’t bleed to death before reaching the hospital.  One of them, wearing a cowboy hat, is Carlos Arredondo, an immigrant who lost a son in Iraq and now is a peace activist.  He is one of the many bystanders who, after the second explosion, ran towards the victims instead of away. As someone commented on the photo: “He’s actually pinching this man’s femoral artery closed with his bare hands.  Honorary citizenship for this guy!”    Carlos was also photographed later holding an American flag, his jacket splashed with the blood of the people he aided.
         Carlos Arredondo is only one of the heroes of this massacre, whom I feel I know personally after watching their courage and humanity on Facebook, internet , TV, and cell phone.
I am so old that I remember when every telephone was connected to a wall and had a rotating dial. (I even remember phones with party lines and phones you had to crank to get the operator’s attention!)
When I was growing up, there was no way to check on absent loved ones.  When I traveled around Europe in the summer of my 18th year, the only way to communicate with my parents was by letter—I would pick up theirs at American Express offices in various cities.  When my youngest daughter lived in France during a junior year abroad, traveled to Amsterdam and then dropped out of sight for four days, I became hysterical, convinced she was dead, until she finally found a way to call home.
          Now, thanks to our ever- present cell phones and internet, we can share our tragedies as they are happening and also reassure loved ones that we’re okay.  Thanks to the cameras in our smart phones, we can bear witness to instances of heroism, and perhaps record something that will help the FBI find clues to the murderer who planted yesterday’s bombs in the knapsacks. 
          When hope is gone, as happened with the victims of 9/11, we can say, “good bye” and “I love you”.  The downside of this instantaneous connection is all the rumors, bad information and paranoid fantasies that can be transmitted from witnesses to cell phones to internet to TV screen within seconds, as happened yesterday.  This is where journalists must come in—to double check the facts and stop the rumors. 
          But every time evil springs up and takes innocent lives, in this age of instant universal communication, I think the good of the cell phone outweighs the bad.  The Boston Marathon bombings will be remembered not for the perpetrator, but for the way the throng of people, gathered in Boston from around the world, ran toward the explosions and tore down the fences to help the victims, instead of running away.

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