Tragedies present a unique challenge for the opinion columnist.
On the one hand, there's little in life that isn't political and contentious, no matter how tragic or gruesome. September 11, 2001, was an act of psychotic mass-murder by members of a fundamentalist death cult, but it was also a deeply political act, and various contentious interpretations of it have been animating discussions of American foreign policy ever since. The slaughter of students at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and elsewhere was the result of insane sociopathic fantasies, but also served as case studies in ongoing policy debates over gun control, school security, and mental illness.
Even the Holocaust is controversial -- not in the loony "did it happen or not" sense, but in terms of what lessons contemporary humanity is supposed to draw from the mass-slaughter of European Jewry seven decades ago. A prominent ex-Israeli politician recently released a book of reflections entitled Defeating Hitler; his thesis was we're still debating how to appropriately respond to the Nazi genocide.
On the other hand, such intellectual reflections on senseless death are discussions born from retrospect and time. In our fanatically frantic modern media climate, today's columnist rarely possesses much of either. The bombs explode on Monday and something has to be said on Tuesday, regardless of the number of facts available to provide context or narrative.
What we get in the meantime is what the Canadian press has mostly generated in response to this week's Boston bombing, an attack, which, despite CNN's best efforts, still lacks a suspect, let alone any discernible motive, purpose, symbolism, or politics. Meta-columns by former politicians about the frailty of life and cruel randomness of fate. Positive-spin editorials about the triumph of American endurance in the face of disaster. Belaboured attempts to find historical trivia. And, of course, lots and lots of chatter about how social media has changed everything -- for good or ill.
Less patient pundits rush down the road of "what-if?" and wind up nowhere.
At a time when so much misinformation is already circulating, it's probably bad form to float culprits even as a thought exercise, but that's exactly what Ronald Crelinsten did in this morning's Toronto Star, where ominous signifiers of far-right provocateurs are seen in the Marathon attack's timing, technique, and tactics. The far-right is a fashionable whipping boy at the moment, but real life doesn't always conform to fashion -- as the many red-faced liberals who initially saw whiffs of a Tea Party conspiracy in the attempted assassination of Gabby Giffords were quick to learn.
The Globe published a similarly problematic piece by Kevin Patterson on its website earlier today (the link no longer works -- apparently it's been taken down) in which it's hard avoid the impression he too would prefer this crime indict certain suspects over others. If it was an "infiltrator from a faraway madrasah," he snarks sarcastically, then "the long, improbably delayed, coda to 9/11 would have arrived." And wouldn't the warmongers just love that. It's curious to get so pre-emptively defensive about a theoretical response to a theoretical victim, but I suppose the man has a column to fill. Most people only have one thing to say, anyway.
When in doubt, there's always Justin Trudeau. On Monday, the new Liberal boss gave one of those unfortunate interviews he seems chronically prone to, and opined that whatever the monstrous nature of the Boston attacks, "over the coming days we have to look at the root causes" that inspired it.
"There's no question that this happened because there's someone who feels completely excluded, completely at war with innocents, at war with a society," he said. "And our approach has to be, where do those tensions come from?" It was a spectacularly tone-deaf statement born from an embarrassingly forced attempt to sound relevant on a topic about which he knew nothing.
The Sun News people, as you might imagine, have had a lot of fun with this, though their motive is as cynically professional as it is opportunistically partisan. Unlike the Boston mystery, Justin's tendency to say dopey things is an established narrative with solid foundations and facts that aren't in dispute. So his latest bit of ill-timed apologism provides reporters with a comfortable retreat into the familiar at a time when uncertainly dominates the rest of the headlines. Drama will always be easier than detective work.
Like most gaffes, one imagines the prominence of this latest Justin-flub will probably be fleeting, but in many ways it's a fitting metaphor for the grasping culture of space-filling commentary that defines this desperately uncomfortable historic moment.
When it comes to offering useful insight about Boston, the press is no less ignorant than Trudeau. They just hide it better.