After Patriots’ Day bombings, Northeastern reflects

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In an effort to bring understanding to the tragedy at the Boston Marathon, Northeastern held an installment of the university series “Conflict, Civility, Respect, Peace: Northeastern Reflects.” Six faculty members were featured as panelists.
Photo courtesy/Gwen Kidera

By Madelyn Stone, News Staff

In the aftermath of the Patriots’ Day explosions that left three dead and dozens others injured, feelings of confusion, sadness and vulnerability have run deeply on campus as they have throughout the Boston area.

As part of an effort to bring understanding to the tragedy, April 24’s installment of the university series “Conflict, Civility, Respect, Peace: Northeastern Reflects” brought together six faculty members as panelists to address these emotions and their implications. Perspectives from professors of law, political science, sociology, criminal justice and information science strove to couch the bombing and its aftermath in a clearer, forward-looking context.

Panelist Stephen Flynn, a political science professor and former senior fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Boston’s response to this tragedy will play a critical role in mitigating tendencies to stereotype groups of people based on their nationality, race or religion.

“This is where Boston can really make a contribution to the country,” he said. “We have to. They’re looking to us, how we respond. We’re the ones who were attacked in this way, we’re the ones who are dealing with the folks who are hurt and going to the funerals. How we respond to this community sends the right signal. And by participating in these kinds of conversations – but making it as a purpose, that we in Boston are going to show our tolerance and our resilience and our compassion – is a way that we can help reduce that risk.”

The Northeastern Reflects series’ theme of civic sustainability was a prominent factor in the discussion. As Dean of the Northeastern School of Law Jeremy Paul explained in his welcoming address, a well-informed populace remains the best defense in trying times.

A tribute to the manifold ramifications of the marathon attacks, the speakers’ opening remarks swept through a scope of interpretations with ideas from fields as varied as philosophy and social media.

Highlighting the issue of diversity, a core motivation behind the development of the panel series, opening comments from assistant law professor Aziza Ahmed drew attention to the conflation of Islam with terrorism and the ill-defined terminology the media perpetuates. Professor Flynn, who is the founding co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Home Security, took to task the notion of homeland security with an emphasis on resilience.

“The events of this last week have really drove home, it seems to me, why this is a very important area of focus for our efforts,” Flynn said. “And frankly, how proud I am to be from this part of the world and of how well this community and the city responded. It really had a salutary effect on the nation by seeing how well Bostonians dealt with this tragedy.”

The significance of the city’s competent, composed response to the bombing is notable, Flynn explained, considering these relatively small, crude acts of terrorism depend on fearful overreaction to achieve their goal of creating widespread panic.

“If the objective of terrorism is to cause mass disruption, our resilience in the face of terrorism starts to drain that motivation for doing it,” he said.

Tracking Boston’s reactions to the tragedy in a different way, associate professor of political science and computer and information science David Lazer analyzed patterns on Twitter during the course the week following the attack. His analysis of the emotional progression revealed the transition from fear to (obscenity-filled) anger, and to a more reflective sympathy.

“And I think this gets back to the resilience that we were talking about,” he said.

Jack McDevitt, associate dean of research for the College of Social Science and Humanities and director of the Northeastern University Institute on Race and Justice took on the subject of the motive from a criminal justice standpoint. His discussion of the four levels of culpability – leaders, fellow travelers, unwilling participants and heroes – lent some shading to a factor often boxed as black or white.

Professor of law and former public defender Daniel Medwed spoke to the issues of Miranda rights, federal versus state prosecution and the venue for the trial.

Dismissing the flurry of media concern about the first topic, Medwed said the controversy was a bit of a red herring.

“Miranda is really just a rule of evidence. It just relates to the use of statements at trial. It doesn’t relate to investigations. The police can ask whatever they want … it’s just that those statements can’t be used against you at trial.”

The final speaker offering perspective, associate sociology professor Gordana Rabrenovic, directs Northeastern’s Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict. Her comments on the sociological explanation for radicalization and the tenets of American society which terrorists seek to undermine paved the way for the panel discussion, beginning on the topic of the United States as a melting pot.

Fielding questions from faculty and student members of an audience of more than 50, the panelists traversed the ground from self-radicalization and the definition of terrorism to police communication with the public and the different phases of a potential death penalty case.

Closing the discussion, moderator Ralph Martin II, Northeastern’s senior vice president and general counsel, hearkened to the words of President Obama.

“In the aftermath of the bombing, the president said that one of the things that makes America the greatest nation on earth – but also one of the things that makes Boston such a great city – is that we welcome people from all around the world: people of every faith and every ethnicity, from every corner of the globe,” Martin said. “So as we continue to learn more about why and how this tragedy happened, let’s make sure that we sustain that spirit. I think it’s in that spirit that we had this conversation tonight and will continue to have other conversations going forward.”