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What I Learned From the Boston Marathon Bombing

The tragedy gave me new respect for social media

By Richard Harris

(On the one-year anniversary of the tragic Boston Marathon bombing, Next Avenue is republishing this essay which first ran shortly after the 2013 race.)

I’m a relatively late adopter when it comes to social media. At age 59, I’ve been on Facebook for several years, follow a few hundred folks on Twitter and occasionally post or tweet.

I’m hardly a technophobe, but I’ve never understood why others spend so much of their day posting or tweeting about their breakfast or other routine parts of their lives. And I certainly find it appalling that in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon horror, the food website Epicurious would tweet “in honor of Boston and New England, may we suggest whole-grain cranberry scones?”

Really? Is social media now a tool to exploit a tragedy for profit? After what was presumably a firestorm of criticism, Epicurious deleted the tweet.
It is at a sober time like this that I can appreciate the real power of social media: to bring us together in a shared moment. It can help us come to terms with the inexplicable, especially those of us who grew up near Boston but now helplessly watch from afar as a familiar neighborhood writhes in pain.
Social media can also provide valuable real-time information. On Monday, in the minutes following the explosions, I learned on Facebook that a good friend’s son had been at the exact location of the bombing — but thankfully an hour earlier — and that a friend’s friend was injured but is expected to recover after rehabilitation.
Then this morning, I saw a picture on Facebook that stopped me in my tracks. Not the older marathoner whose knees were buckled by the force of the bomb blast or the heartbreaking pictures of those whose faces were spattered in blood or who had portions of limbs blown off: Those were tough enough, but this picture prompted me to do something I had never done on Facebook before — I hit the “share” button.
(MORE: Boston Marathon: When the Cheering Stopped)
A Photo Worth a Thousand Tears
It was of a second-grader, missing a front tooth and holding up a homemade sign last year: “No more hurting people. Peace,” he had written in that sweet printing only a grade-schooler could do. It was, of course, Martin Richard, the 8-year-old from Dorchester, who died in the marathon blast. His crime: cheering on the runners near the finish line with his mother and sister, who were seriously injured, and his brother, who escaped injury.
In the wake of Newtown, Conn., the senseless deaths of more children in a society that cherishes youth is unbearable. Every time we heard another Newtown parent describe a child, usually accompanied by a picture, our hearts broke a little more.
Yet there was something about the picture of Martin Richard urging the world to not hurt people that was especially excruciating. By sharing that picture with my Facebook friends, I didn’t feel any better. He still suffered a senseless death. But when someone “likes” the post or comments on it, something happens to make the grief instantly communal, and I don’t feel as if I'm bearing the full weight of my personal grief.

(MORE: Newtown Shooting: A 50+ Mom's Plea for Action)
Growing Up With Tragedy
I was a year older than Martin Richard when I sat in our family room, days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated nearly 50 years ago, watching Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television. Then, when I was barely a teenager, there were the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. All horrible events, but somehow political assassinations seemed more distant than the kind of violence that has been visited on random people in my children’s youth.
I realize my kids grew up in a much less innocent world than I did. There was the Oklahoma City bombing 18 years ago this week, which interrupted our family vacation in California. Just over a decade ago, a sniper stalked the Washington, D.C., region, killing 10 people, including one not far from where one of my daughters was on a school field trip.
Hearing my kids’ school was in “lockdown” when the infamous “white van” was spotted in the neighborhood was a sign that something fundamental had shifted. And of course, 9/11 changed everything for their generation. Any thought they could grow up free of fear disappeared.
Using Social Media for the Powers of Good
Now we have Newtown and an 8-year-old taken in an instant near the finish line of a marathon. I’m not sure if I’ll ever forget that picture of Martin Richard, an innocent kid, who not long ago called for peace and implored us adults to not hurt anyone.
There’s nothing I can do about the violence in this country, but I do have a suggestion for how we, collectively, might do some good. Instead of sharing a picture of the Egg McMuffin you had for breakfast, use social media to send a friend this picture of Martin Richard. If enough people do, maybe his message will spread around the world and he will not have died in vain. 

Richard Harris is a freelance writer, consultant to the nonprofit iCivics, former producer of NPR's "All Things Considered" and former senior producer of "ABC News Nightline with Ted Koppel." Follow him on Twitter @redsox54.  Read More
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