reality and representation

On Christmas, a friend of mine was sitting next to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on NW flight 253. You probably heard about the flight. I wrote a story on it for the Calvin College Chimes, and I tried to communicate what Jay was most concerned about: that even though Abdulmutallab was trying, well, to kill him, he’s still a human being and was scared and even polite. Dehumanizing alleged terrorists doesn’t do anyone any good.

That’s the story I wrote, and I think it’s a good story to tell, but I would have also liked to write it a different way, about how technology and media affected how people found out about his story and even how he himself understood the event.

For instance, I found out about his experience through a combination of the radio, Facebook, and eventually a telephone call. But as a long-time friend and someone who had studied with him in the place he had been coming from when all this happened, it makes a certain amount of sense that I should know what happened at all. Weirder was the viral response that a vague status update and photo his dad posted on Facebook spawned: everything from total strangers commenting with their aggressive opinions about “those Muslims” to a message Jay received from the CNN-employed cousin of someone his brother had known in Prague asking if he would be interviewed.

The most interesting thing of all to me was that when I finally did hear the story from Jay himself, it was as if he was repeating what he’d heard on the news. Here was the one guy who had experienced this thing truly first hand, more than Jasper Schuringa who was sitting across the plane, more than the various other passengers who’ve talked to the media, only less than Abdulmutallab himself, perhaps, telling me about the “firecracker-sounding pop” and using other buzzwords that came straight from CNN.

Obviously, he did have a lot more observations to share than the 11 o’clock news, but I was still surprised at the extent to which syndicated accounts of the event found their way into how he represented the story. Nevertheless, Jay’s an insightful guy, and I hope you’ll read what he had to say about the event on the Chimes website, and I have to thank him, too, for letting me break the story in our humble, weekly school newspaper. With the instantaneous nature of today’s media, I doubt it will ever happen again.

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