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Death and Information

The Hillsborough Stadium disaster, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the facts about how we experience and understand tragedy

At 3:06 p.m. on April 15, 1989, when the police finally told the referee to stop play in the FA Cup semifinal match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, I was not yet a soccer fan. I was a grade school student in a small town in Oklahoma, and not only had I never heard of the FA Cup, I doubt I knew the city of Liverpool existed — in fact I’m sure I didn’t, because a couple of years later, when I found out about the Beatles, I was disappointed to learn that they had come from a place with such an ugly name. When I thought about sports, it wasn’t soccer that excited me, but basketball, which I strongly, and incorrectly, suspected I was good at, and football, which for me mostly meant the shadowed areas behind the bleachers at high school games, where the other kids and I would congregate on autumn nights and harmlessly get into trouble.

One day, I suppose in late April or early May, my school’s obese and cantankerous art teacher, Mrs. Wiley, came to class with a copy of a magazine, I don’t remember which one — probably Time or Newsweek, or maybe she had a whole stack of magazines, maybe we were doing a collage project or something along those lines. It’s hard to say what Mrs. Wiley’s plan was, because even at the time, her motives were not always easy to decipher. A year or so earlier she had missed several weeks of art class after being struck by lightning. According to the account that she gave us upon her return, she had been indoors watching television during a storm when lightning quite unexpectedly hit her house and came out of her television and enveloped her. When that happened she was already known as the second-scariest teacher at the school; from then on her lessons tended to veer off in unpredictable directions.

Somehow or other she gave me a newsmagazine that was full of pictures. I’m sure it contained other pictures besides the ones I remember — like all such magazines it must have featured presidents and prime ministers and tigers and rock musicians — but the pictures I remember were the ones of English soccer fans being crushed to death in something called the Hillsborough Stadium disaster. I don’t know if I read the accompanying article, but from the photos I understood immediately what had happened. A large crowd had entered a tunnel, the way out of the tunnel had been blocked by a gate, and no one outside the tunnel had opened the gate while the people at the front of the crowd were crushed against it by the pressure from the people at the back. The images were brutal — contorted bodies pressed against what looked like the wall of a wire cage, elbows thrust against the bars at strange angles, faces bloated with unconsciousness or mad with pain and desperation. I felt a pang of claustrophobia as I imagined the scene from their perspective. To be able to see freedom through the bars of the fence, to be an inch from freedom while you felt yourself asphyxiate. Ninety-four Liverpool fans had died.1 To my mind this was fascinating as well as disturbing, like all appalling things. Here was a part of reality no one had told me about.

Years later, when I had become a soccer fan, I wondered what the Hillsborough disaster had really been, and I learned the facts behind the nightmare of that day — the incompetence and malignancy of the police, the subsequent cover-up and ghoulish attempt to blame Liverpool fans for their own deaths. Later still, I became a soccer writer and followed from up close the movement to have the lies acknowledged and the victims exonerated.2 In Mrs. Wiley’s art room, though, I had no context for any of this. I only soaked in the horror and then went on to science class and forgot about it, in the way that you sometimes temporarily forget the things you remember for the rest of your life.

boy at Marathon memorial

We each come to tragedy in our own way. At 2:50 p.m. on Monday, April 15, 2013, 24 years to the day after the Hillsborough disaster, two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.3 Like Hillsborough, the Marathon bombing was a sporting-event tragedy that involved issues far bigger than sports — in England, the problem of social class and the relationship of government to the people it claims to serve; in America, the agonizing 21st-century problem of terrorism and everything that word represents. In their immediate aftermath, both tragedies also turned on the problem of failed journalism, of misinformation, which threw into relief the shortcomings, or worse, of the media. After Hillsborough, the Rupert Murdoch–owned Sun newspaper4 was a central cog in a campaign of officially sanctioned lies designed to demonize the victims and protect the police. After Boston, irresponsible reporting and the ludicrous frenzy of the 24-hour news cycle led to a whole multiplying host of false accusations and claims. The New York Daily News solved the bombing, incorrectly, about 35 times; on the Wednesday following the bombing, CNN’s John King reported that the suspect had been arrested before anyone even knew who or where the suspect was. The Associated Press threw out its own sourcing rules in order to spread as quickly as possible information that turned out to be faulty. The whole country spent days in a fog of confusion created by the people who were supposed to bring clarity to the event.5

So it’s no surprise that the facts, the idea of precise and correct information, took on an outsize importance in both cases. Not that facts are ever unimportant. After a tragedy, facts can prevent misunderstandings with terrible consequences. Facts can prevent people from being wrongfully blamed, or groups from being wrongfully targeted. Facts can prevent disasters from being repeated. Facts matter immensely. But after both Hillsborough and Boston, the facts assumed an almost salvific quality. In the case of Hillsborough, the quest for fact was also the quest to exonerate the dead; in the case of Boston, the sense that one was pursuing fact, waiting for fact, was what distinguished not only good reporters but also in some way good citizens. Think about the blog posts that went up clarifying “what we know about the bombings” — what a relief they were. How moral they seemed. How moral the impulse behind them really was.

I’ve been thinking, though, about how we talk to each other after a catastrophe, about the ways we try to grasp and manage it, and I think that in cases like these our devotion to fact can also conceal a lie. This is the lie: that the kinds of stories journalists tell can somehow help us isolate the event, allow us to see it from every side, like a globe we’re free to spin. The fiction of nonfiction is that if we line up the facts, if we assemble them into objective sentences in chronological order, then we will know what happened. We will understand. Whereas in truth, catastrophe is always a matter of particular, lived experience — of so many hundreds or thousands or millions of particular experiences, or of one particular experience. I’m not talking about the kind of narrative that makes for good magazine copy — heroic tourist charges into burning wreckage — but about the angle of sunlight the tourist was watching strike the trees the moment she heard the blast, and how she was thinking about whether to illegally import a pet fox, knowing she’d never do it, and how the sunlight and the thought were somehow still present in her mind as she felt herself running toward the flames. You are walking to a game, feeling vaguely anxious because you left your 4-year-old with his aunt, who’s a lousy babysitter, and you’re hoping you can catch the 5:56 train home so he won’t have to fall asleep in a strange bed, and maybe you’ll eat something at halftime, and wait, why’s that person screaming — don’t push me — stop pushing …

I thought about Hillsborough on and off all through the Monday of the Marathon bombing, remembering that magazine article, which, it now occurred to me, was probably the first encounter I ever had with English soccer. It had been a bad few days for sports already — Millwall fans fighting in the stands at Wembley, Newcastle fans fighting with police — and the conjunction of this pair of near-riots with the Hillsborough anniversary had commentators speculating about a return to the 1980s, when English soccer seemed so stubbornly bound up with violence. My wife and I are renovating our Victorian house, and at some point in the morning I went upstairs to mend plaster cracks in the attic. There, I thought about the photo that was making the rounds of the Internet, the absurd one from a couple of weekends ago that depicts a Newcastle fan who is trying to fight a police horse. Have you seen it? There’s something so funny about it, as an image — this little, portly, gray-haired, middle-aged fellow squaring up like a boxer against the massive animal, which is leaning back in a kind of delicate surprise — something so ridiculous that it’s hard to take as a sign of evil boiling over. You feel instinctively that this little guy has been wronged somehow, that he’s been made to suffer some outrage against his dignity. Probably he’s just a drunk who decided to punch a horse.6 Anyway, after seeing it in my head all morning, in the afternoon I wanted to look at it again, so I went downstairs, and while I was at my computer I decided to check Twitter. And just at that moment the news was arriving about the two explosions in Boston.

Why am I dwelling on all this ephemera? It’s not (believe me) as a plea for newer New Journalism, or because I think my own experience is important. It’s because this is what we all are, at any given moment: threads of half-remembered images and fragments of ideas and intentions that we will or will not carry out, and if we come to a tragedy and are lucky enough not to be its victims, then this is how we come to it. And if we are unlucky and do become its victims, then this is what is most immediately taken away — feelings about horse fights and memories of electrocuted art teachers, angles of sunlight, whatever our experience comprises in that moment, whatever is uniquely in our heads. Ninety-six of those threads vanished because of Hillsborough in 1989; four more were erased by the killers in Boston 24 years later. Countless others were invaded by terrible pain. Our flight to fact following a disaster can sometimes feel, and can sometimes be, brave, but I think it can also be a way to sever the trauma from our own points of contact with it, to construct a world where real life encircles but does not quite touch the tragedy. But real life’s tendrils go everywhere, and the disaster will never be separate from your experience of the disaster. And knowing that, being conscious of that, may be the key to the empathy without which it is impossible to imagine, much less to honor, the dead.

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Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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