Op Ed: Understanding Feeling Through Tragedy

In April of 2013, my department was a bit on edge. The stress from parting faculty, student over-enrollment, low budgets, and the tension caused by those who just couldn’t get along created an atmosphere that was something like a scene from “The Faculty;” I was unaware who was a friend and who was out to attack, eat, or infect me with gloom.

One of my colleagues laughed at my naivete. “You are new,” he said. “Do this for 25 years and you will understand.”

Maybe so. But I still couldn’t grasp how people—most of whom held a position that I have dreamed of since I entered academia in the early 2000s­—could be so angry at each other, the system, and the world. Shouldn’t everyone be skipping through the halls whistling Louis Armstrong tunes? The birds were chirping. It didn’t make sense.

Then I woke up one Friday morning. It was overcast and grey in New Paltz, N.Y. During the night, eight notifications were sent to my phone, all variances of the same headline: “Manhunt for Suspected Boston Bomber After Brother Killed in Gunfight.”

I felt my heart sink to my stomach like an anvil. But after an hour of checking the Facebook profiles of everyone I knew who still lived in Boston, and after I was assured that my friends were safe due to the total shut down of the city, my reaction turned black: I became obsessed. I needed them to catch Dzhokar Tsarnaev.

Historically, I’ve had mixed feelings about these kinds of things. I was in graduate school studying art in Boston when it was reported that Osama bin Laden had been captured and killed. My roommates — three males in their mid-twenties — cheered out our second and third story windows at the news. The streets echoed with cheers and honking horns. I, however, felt weird.

The only time I experienced similar celebrations, in person, was during my final year of college when Obama beat McCain for the presidency. In town, the streets moved with people parading their way to the bars. On campus, students set themselves up in pod-like shapes, chanting words like “unity” and “Obama.” Despite the cold in the air, they played music and hugged each other and drank beer from cans in brown paper bags. It was beautiful.

What bothered me in 2011 was not that bin Laden was dead. It was the intensity of the jubilant reaction around me. It felt like the whole world was dancing and I was stuck in a “but-we-killed-him” mind frame. Would the cheers have been as loud if he died from anything but our own hands? It seemed inhumane.

I called my dad, a former hippie-turned-businessman. He said that he understood my conflicted feelings.

During that phone call, we spoke about the people we knew who lost family members on 9/11. We spoke about my uncle, who developed both asbestos poisoning and a drinking problem after spending weeks at Ground Zero setting up emergency lights. We reminisced about the eight or nine birthdays that we spent on top of the Twin Towers, a tradition we started after I got my first camera.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I asked him if there was something wrong with me because I didn’t feel the way everyone else did. He said no, explaining that death is weird and makes people act in odd ways.

Cut to two years later.

“It’s like an episode of “Law and Order!”” read a comment on a friend’s Facebook status.

Thanks to social media—and my friend who was listening to police scanners and posting the events as he heard them—I was able to follow the chase for Dzhokar Tsarnaev as it was happening (with a few delays depending on how quick I could hit the refresh button on my Internet browser).

“Get those lights up.”

“Identify yourself when you have him.”

“We have a problem with your downlink (helicopter); it’s being broadcast on the Internet.”

“No movement.”

“They are moving in.”


By the time he posted his final status for the night, I had been glued to the same plastic blue cafeteria chair for over two hours. I looked around to see if I knew anyone to share my excitement with, but other than a select few, mostly employees preparing for the end of their shift, the only thing around were some carefully stacked chairs.

I rushed to one of the local bars in town, where my boyfriend, Stephen, was playing with his band. He was in the middle of a set, which was fortunate because it gave me time to check my news apps and see if any networks posted about his capture. They did (only a few minutes after I found out via Facebook), but with nothing that I didn’t already know: authorities found Tsarnaev in a boat in a Watertown backyard, shots were fired, he was injured and en route to Mt. Auburn Hospital. I read through the various reports, searching with the hope that he arrived alive, which he did.

From the stage, I must have looked like a phone-obsessed college student, my wide-eyed expression lit only by my phone. I caught Stephen looking at me, worried. Not worried because of what happened, but worried that I was texting someone else, another man. After his first set break, I apologized for being late and assured him no, I wasn’t texting someone, I was reading the news. I explained the chase from beginning to end and expressed my excitement about police scanners and social media with an energy that caused me to knock over the glass of water that he just ordered. Needless to say, he was not happy. I, however, didn’t care. They got him.

The next day, I was glad to find out that he was still alive.

But as the days passed, I felt increasingly nervous that I had developed an uncharacteristic and demonic need for justice. Was I losing that young liberal way of thinking that my dad so often refers to?

Was my colleague right? Does repeated exposure lend itself to a lack of that “it’s-a-beautiful-world” mentality? When speaking about the recent string of events—Aurora, Norway, Newtown, Boston—the answer seems clear: of course. Even so, I find it hard to believe that my crazed obsession with the capture of Tsarnaev was the result of an accumulation that peaked overnight.

Over the past four years, though, I’ve thought a lot about my politics. On a number of occasions, I found myself questioning if I was failing a certain side. Thoughts such as “I work, why should I pay my roommates’ share of the bills?” has done a number on my confidence in my values.

But if the capture of Tsarnaev has done anything to me on a personal level (other than consuming 2-plus hours of my life on that Friday night in the campus cafeteria), it has shown me that I had not completely lost my compassion to the dark side.

Over time, my feelings of confidence and obsession dissipated to the more comfortable realm of uncertainty (I blame my initial reaction to a weakness to entertainment — following the action that close really was like an episode of “Law and Order!”). Yes, I am glad that Tsarnaev was caught, but the feelings of frustration I felt when I heard that they were seeking the death penalty for his case brought a small smile to my face.

I called my dad a few days ago to catch him up on what was going on in my life. He said I sounded good and that he couldn’t wait to see me for my birthday. He asked where I wanted to go for dinner and I told him the name of a local restaurant that has a large vegetarian menu. He sighed sarcastically and I laughed, telling him I couldn’t wait to see him either.