If It Stops At All

That happened.

I don’t want to ignite any controversy here, but I’m just going to come out and say it: I prefer Rick Springfield’s 1981 single “Love Is Alright Tonight” to his signature hit “Jessie’s Girl.” I know that this probably sounds like blasphemy to a lot of the Springfield purists out there, but I hope you can understand that this is merely a difference of opinion and that I mean no offense to anyone.

I had “Love Is Alright Tonight” stuck in my head for much of last week. For the record, it’s not an 80s pop hit about terrorist attacks, fertilizer plant explosions, poisoned envelopes, and shootouts – it’s just a song about a guy who’s eager to clock off work and take his girl out for a night of shenanigans. But as I grimly read casualty figures and listened to gunfire and explosions on the Boston police scanner, one line from the song kept echoing in my head:

"Everyone's sayin' the sky's gonna fall,
Don't know where it's gonna stop if it stops at all.
I know the world’s goin’ crazy tonight,
I hope it holds together for one more night.”

I took a pretty defiant tone in Wednesday night’s update – I was sad, but decidedly un-terrorized by the goings on of the week thus far. At the time, of course, I was only processing one terrorist attack and one unemployed Elvis impersonator sending poisoned letters to elected officials.

24 hours later, I found myself feeling sufficiently terrorized. The fertilizer plant exploding and wiping a town off the map was pretty scary, but what really did it was when I came home the following evening to discover that all the thoughts and prayers America had sent to Boston still weren’t enough to stop some terrible hybrid of The Town and Grand Theft Auto.

The root of my terror wasn’t the idea that terrorists might descend on Northern Los Angeles and kill me personally – while we do have a pretty nice Ralphs and a couple of Zagat-rated sushi places here in Studio City it’s still not the sort of high value target a terrorist dreams of. The root of my terror was that I didn’t know when the terrible things were going to stop.

I imagine that this past week was similar to what living in Australia must be like – everything was trying to kill us. If it could explode, it exploded. You remember that super deadly poison they made on Breaking Bad? Well, somebody’s been mailing it to people, so don’t touch any envelopes. The entire city of Boston basically reenacted The Siege, a crappy movie I thought was completely implausible until like three days ago.

Terror, I think, comes from uncertainty. On Wednesday night I was certain that everything was said and done – we were mourning the dead and caring for the injured and the authorities were investigating the bombing. Based on what I’d learned from 9/11, I figured we’d have a solid decade of sketchy intelligence and war crimes before anybody got brought to justice.

When I heard about the Texas explosion, though, my worldview changed. A horrific explosion coming right on the heels of another horrific explosion, outside of Waco, nearing the 20th anniversary of the Waco siege… I immediately decided that this and Boston were part of an ongoing terrorist attack coordinated by multiple American right-wing militias – otherwise known as a 2nd-rate spec script for Homeland.*

*I’ve never watched Homeland, but if it’s anywhere near as intense as the news last week I might have to wait awhile before I start.

On Thursday night I stayed up until about 3:00 AM, monitoring live updates from Reddit about the manhunt in Boston and listening to streams of the police scanner through my headphones.

Sometime after midnight the name Sunil Tripathi started getting thrown around online – he was a missing Brown University student and somebody somewhere had heard his name on the police scanner as a possible suspect. Soon I was bouncing between several local news reports about his disappearance and watching videos made by his family begging him to come home, eagerly playing psychologist with my friends as I tried to figure out what had driven this ordinary American to terrorism.

On Friday morning I woke up to discover that the suspects being sought by the police were two Chechens, neither of whom appeared to have any connection to right-wing militias and neither of whom was named Sunil Tripathi. In the course of that day’s manhunt, I discovered that investigators in Texas had found no signs of foul play in the fertilizer plant explosion, and that Sunil Tripathi’s family had been understandably horrified that the Internet had baselessly convicted their missing son of terrorism based on the fact that he had a funny name and bore vague resemblance to one of the suspects. 

When people don’t have answers, they tend to make up their own – I know this because it’s exactly what I did.

The footage from the bombings on Monday was so horrible that it felt like something out of a really good albeit grim movie like Children of Men. When something else inexplicably exploded in the same week, I jumped to the most theatrical explanation – coordinated, nationwide terrorist attacks, because if I saw that shit in a movie I’d think it was both plausible and exciting.

Once I’d developed a plot, I needed characters, and right on cue the Internet gave me a bright if not slightly withdrawn Ivy League student who disappeared last month, leaving behind his phone, his wallet, and a vague note for his family. The idea that he’d left his university life behind to become a terrorist was so fascinating to me that I wished I’d written it – but since I hadn’t, I just did the next best thing and decided that it was real.

I normally pride myself on approaching life with a healthy skepticism, but in spite of that and a journalism degree I was still content to spin my own recklessly inaccurate account with virtually no hard facts to back any of it up, all so I could make sense of a senseless week. 

It was stupid. But people do stupid things when they’re scared. And that might be the most dangerous thing about terrorism.

The way the story actually ended on Friday was almost a perfect Hollywood ending. After one crazy day of occupation, the bad guy was caught alive and the army of police slowly marched out of Watertown as throngs of jubilant citizens lined the streets to cheer for them – looking an awful lot like spectators at a marathon.

Watching this on TV and listening to cops on the scanner congratulating one another, I heard the last refrain of “Love Is Alright Tonight” echoing in my head:

“It’s gonna be alright!
It’s gonna be alright!
It’s gonna be alright!”

Truman Capps has much higher hopes for next week.