Avery’s Run to Freedom (or Our White Noise of Modern-day Warfare)

NOTE: Avery Bargar, age 23, delivered the scripture reading before I spoke on Sunday, March 10th at First Baptist Church in Newton (MA), eight miles southwest of the Boston Marathon finish line. Five weeks later he was near that finish line at about 2:50 p.m. when he felt two explosions. He sent me this essay. The insight he shares about the “techno-media echo chamber” is especially valuable. Please read to the finish. And please circulate. 

Guest Blogger Avery Bargar

Maybe World War III wasn’t nuclear; maybe it came and went, and Americans watched it on TV. The Long War could be World War IV, better hidden, though not for much longer, in the internet age. Rather than World Wars becoming increasingly obvious in their destruction, perhaps they’ve become more psychological, because they’re tied to our entertainment. We did not get a new World War, instead we got The Real World: War.

By Avery Bargar

BOSTON— On the morning of the 117th Boston Marathon, I opened the Lindt Chocolate Store in the Lenox Hotel in Copley Square, right at the intersection of Boylston and Exeter Street. There were thousands of people lining both sides of Boylston as I squeezed my way through the crowd to work. In the store, our view of the race could hardly have been better — we were a hundred yards or so from the finish line — so as the front runners of the women’s and men’s races took the title, we watched. My coworker and I both marveled at the feat of will, determination, and faith that it must take to make it to the front of the Boston Marathon.

I left work at 2:40 to jam with someone at Boston Conservatory. Outside of the store, I found myself instantly amidst an enormous crowd. I had to walk slowly away from the finish line, bumping my backpack filled with sheet music into everybody on either side of me. I laughed a bit at the pomp of this whole event—thousands of people; cameras and corporate advertising everywhere—New Balance having cleverly co-opted the themes of social upheaval of the last two years into several historical, Boston-related slogans, including “Run to Freedom”—and in the middle of it all, runners streaming by, pumping their fists in the air. Ten minutes later I had barely made it a few hundred feet from Lindt when I heard a massive BOOM.

Instantly the tone of the crowd changed. Cheering stopped. I turned to face the street, confused, noticing bewilderment and disorientation on a thousand faces. I saw a large plume of white smoke rising a couple hundred feet down the street. As soon as this registered, there was another explosion, and people began to scream. The shock tore us away as fast as possible. Let me make this clear— I was not one of the extremely brave people who ran into the heart of the attack to help the wounded. I was a couple hundred yards from the explosions, amid an enormous terrified throng. We ran south, fast. I alerted other pedestrians and drivers along the way, lent out my cell phone, donated blood an hour later, and I tried to call my coworkers, but I did not double back into the heart of the carnage to help. I did not notice that as a possibility, and I am in awe of those who did. There was intense confusion from the start; the immediate experience of it was obscured by this odd emerging technological phenomenon that is both a web and a barrier; connecting yet dividing us.

A week later, this is one of the hardest things for me to unpack about my experience of these attacks— the use of what I’ll call the “post-9/11 techno-media echo chamber” as a political medium. We carry it with us everywhere, even if we don’t have a smartphone.
As I ran away from Boylston Street with thousands of other frightened Bostonians and tourists, I noticed the waves of communication unfold. The first was with the emerging reality— we all witnessed two violent explosions.

“Get away, fast. There could be more.”

The second wave was with the other people in the area.

“Are you ok? Let’s go, keep running.”

I saw a mother and two boys weeping in fear. I lent my phone to a woman much closer to the blasts than I was— right at the finish line when they went off. She was traumatized from what she had seen, which has already been repeated in what will probably be weeks of reports. Which brings me to the third wave, brought through digital devices— calls and texts with family and friends. I tried to call my coworkers to see that they got out.

And in the fourth wave, we distanced ourselves just a bit from the immediate moment, those around us, and our friends and family, and focused on information. We wanted the facts. As we wandered away from the blasts, the sounds of police and ambulance sirens screaming through Back Bay, we became the second hand consumers of our own experience. We turned to our electronic media to help us interpret our confusion and terror, and joined the intended audience of these attacks. Because the key to the post-9/11 techno-media echo chamber is this: the attacked and the witnesses are not the intended audience; we were simply players, acting out the role thrust on us. The real audience is you, out there, watching on your now unavoidable screen— which has followed you from your local cinema into your living room, then into your businesses and restaurants, your lap, and now your pocket.

But how did this echo chamber come to be?

I walked through Boston and into Cambridge, then took a cab to Medford. Stopping at a pizza shop, I saw coverage on the TV of what I’d just seen firsthand three hours earlier. One thing nearly as traumatic as escaping bombs is having them follow you on screens for hours. Here I was in Medford, tired, shaken, hungry, confronted with four new angles of the blasts I’d just run from.

“And look, there’s a scared crowd running for their lives; how awful!”

Within a matter of hours, I’d gone from running for my life to watching my performance on screen, playing a young man running for his life from the danger and bewilderment of a Postmodern Nightmare. Except it’s a nightmare within a nightmare, because the techno-media echo chamber follows us everywhere we go. And this brings me back to that first point— the use of the post-9/11 techno-media echo chamber as a political tactic. Indulge the digression, please. It is relevant.

The assumption I learned in high school history was that World War II was the last World War due to the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction. World War III could only be nuclear, and since there has been no nuclear war, we’re not there yet. YET! Which is why we took out Saddam! And bin Laden! And Gaddafi! And are looking out for Ahmadinejad! And Kim Jong-Un!

But what about the “Cold War?” Where was it cold? The US, USSR, UK and Western Europe, all sites of World War II. Where was it hot? South America, South East Asia, Central Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East, ending with the disintegration of the USSR, and resulting in regime changes the world over. The difference here is that the media learned to bring the spectacle from American cinemas on news reels into American living rooms on TVs, with spin. A hot war in a cool package. Could this be a candidate for the title of World War III?

But what about the “War on Terror,” or the “Long War?” This one has been pretty well hidden, and yet, “terrorist attacks” and American invasions and interventions made the evening news, the papers, and online news sites; there’s leaked video on Youtube and Vimeo— Twitter, Facebook, and the blogospohere offer platforms for sharing information and perspectives unavailable from the mainstream media. The justifications for this war crumbled under international scrutiny years ago, and yet the drones fly forward, largely un-examined by the mainstream. Could this be another candidate for the title?

Maybe World War III wasn’t nuclear; maybe it came and went, and Americans watched it on TV. The Long War could be World War IV, better hidden, though not for much longer, in the internet age. Rather than World Wars becoming increasingly obvious in their destruction, perhaps they’ve become more psychological, because they’re tied to our entertainment. We did not get a new World War, instead we got The Real World: War.


The normalization of violence through movies, video games, TV, and the news is part of this war, and the techno-media echo chamber, which evolved again on 9/11, has been essential to this process. And further, since five years ago, we carry it with us everywhere! At all times we can access a wealth of perspectives and contacts, yes, but the echo chamber has one main message: DANGER, AROUND THE CORNER— Stay Tuned! From the very format of the Hot Leading Story — “Now to you Tom, at the scene of the blast”— the media feed us the same formats again and again. Tragedy is our New York Times Bestseller, America’s Greatest National Export. And the antidote? “Security.”

In other words, the techno-media echo chamber co-evolved with a culture of international violence, and in shaping our perception of that violence it became a political medium. But it is a battleground only because it insists on being simplistic. It refuses to ask hard questions. And since World War II it has so succeeded in branding and re-branding war, and has amplified itself so absurdly, that we now carry it in our pockets. As a friend told me, “It’s like there’s a town crier at every corner.”

People have learned how to use it against us, and this has only gotten worse since 9/11. It is a crucial tool in modern warfare— whose home front is not a nuclear battle ground or worse, if possible; it is simply a battle against consciousness, against possibility.

As I ran away from this attack, I was in shock, jolted totally awake, and in that state, I was not surprised, to be honest. This is what happens when we live in ignorance. The victims are not at fault. “At fault” is not the right term. “Collateral damage” is closer. I don’t know why this happened, but my main point is that civic dialogue, a practice of open discussion and patient engagement, has gradually been lobotomized. The spaces where it happens are few and far between, increasingly de-funded, or expensive. The intended audience of these attacks is all of us caught in the din of this post-9/11 techno-media echo chamber.

I bring up the “Cold War” and the “War on Terror” and “Terrorists” because they are misleading labels, propagated via the echo chamber, that reduce a few perspectives into “facts” to be memorized and regurgitated,and  then sold in textbooks and on TV, erasing other more nuanced interpretations, and concealing violence.

“Cowards ruined a great event.”

“A tragedy in Boston’s fine history.”

“Increased security will of course be necessary.”

We have to step back and ask the question: WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? We have to ask! “Random, senseless violence” is insufficient.

Further, I’d like to know more about all of this military equipment local and state police forces have rolled out. How much did it cost? Where else could that money have gone? Now that a precedent has been set to use hundreds, if not thousands of high-tech weapons to catch one man, what limits will be put in place for future use?

We have been unconscious as this behemoth has grown.. It has lured us into its den. It spins half-truths and lies, and coins terms that force their way into our language, cannibalizing many more specific terms. It demands that we watch.

My sympathies to the victims and their families. I won’t be forgetting what I saw and heard at the Marathon, and how totally it fit with the logic of Postmodern America.