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Faculty experts reflect on the Boston Marathon bombing

The number of tweets expressing fear dramatically increased in the moments following the Boston Marathon bombing, according to David Lazer, an associate professor and authority on social networks.

“Fear spread in Boston as people began grappling with what was happening,” Lazer explained, noting the swiftness with which news spreads on social media. “Oh god,” one person tweeted after viewing a photo of the crime scene. “I just heard it outside my window. Is everyone alright?”

Lazer was one of six Northeastern faculty members who reflected on the twin bombings at the fourth event in a yearlong educational series on civic sustainability. Northeastern students, for their part, have banded together to lend their time, expertise, and compassion to the relief effort. The Office of Campus activities has created a website highlighting some of the ways students have helped, from donating blood to raising money for victims of the attack, which killed three and injured more than 260.

The civic sustainability series—Conflict. Civility. Respect. Peace. Northeastern Reflects—is organized by the College of Social Sciences and Humanities and the Office of Student Affairs and is hosted by Distinguished Professor of Political Science Michael Dukakis in conjunction with the Presidential Council on Inclusion and Diversity. President Joseph E. Aoun announced the formation of the council in February.

Last Wednesday’s event, “The Boston Marathon Bombing and Its Aftermath,” challenged Northeastern faculty members to make sense of the issues raised by the bombing and the search for the perpetrators, with a particular focus on the motivation for crime, the importance of resilience, and the role of social media.

The faculty panelists comprised Aziza Ahmed, assistant professor of law; Stephen Flynn, professor of political science and founding co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security; Lazer, associate professor of political science and computer and information science; Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice; Daniel Medwed, professor of law; and Gordana Rabrenovic, associate professor of sociology and director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict. Ralph Martin II, senior vice president and general counsel, moderated the discussion.

Jeremy Paul, dean of the School of Law, and Uta Poiger, co-​​chair of the presidential council and interim dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, welcomed students, faculty, and staff to the event, which was held in West Village F.

“Justice, bravery, and integrity thrive in environments in which there is understanding,” Paul said in framing the importance of the forthcoming discussion.

Flynn, whose expertise lies in community resilience, praised the bravery of first responders, many of whom applied tourniquets to the wounded and carried victims to makeshift triage centers. “The difference between life and death,” he explained, “is bystanders and local public safety officials.”

“We must celebrate resilience when we see it,” Flynn added, noting the innumerable news stories in which people recounted live-saving heroism. “It’s important to tell those stories about how we dealt with it.”

According to Ahmed, some media outlets rely on ethnic and religious stereotypes in order to rationalize the motivation behind criminal acts.

“TV shows like 24 portray Muslims as secret radicals, which gets reproduced as facts by news agencies,” said Ahmed, who writes about the changing global landscape of Muslim minorities after 9/11.

She pointed to a Supreme Court decision against a Pakistani-American who was arrested in November 2001 on charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States as an example of utilizing “fear to distract us from the legal questions about how to end violence.”

At issue in the case, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, was whether federal officials “designated Iqbal a person ‘of high interest’ on account of his race, religion, or national origin,” according to court documents. Said Ahmed: “After an act of violence, we often desire to assign blame and ask for vigilance for the sake of justice.”

Medwed, a leading scholar in the field of wrongful convictions, believes true justice in criminal cases hinges on the proper use of the Constitution, which, he said, is designed to “protect the most evil among us.”

“If we trample on the Constitution,” he said, “then what could happen next?”

Medwed said the trial of marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has been formally charged with using a weapon of mass destruction, will most likely take place outside of Massachusetts. “If there is no plea bargain, there is going to be a major battle over a change of venue,” he explained. “Here we have a person who we believe was behind these terrible acts and it may be difficult for him to get a fair trial in Boston.”

Following the panel discussion, faculty fielded questions posed by audience members. One student asked Flynn how tragedies like the marathon bombing could be prevented.

In his response, Flynn compared acts of terrorism to acts of nature, such as hurricanes and tsunamis. “The reality is that this is a fact of modern life,” he said. “We’re just not going to get down to zero.”