Jesse Walker at Reason has a good overview of things to know about crises like the Boston bombing. This snippet stood out for me:
Movies and TV shows have given us a deeply misleading picture of how people behave after incidents like this, one where the folks at the scene of the crime lose their minds while those who have the benefit of distance keep a steady head. This is backwards. Sociologists have shown that people tend to behave very admirably under the pressure of a disaster; panic and anti-social behavior are fairly rare. We saw that pattern play out again in Boston, from the bystanders who instantly rushed toward the blasts to help the injured to the locals who opened their homes to stranded strangers.
This is a striking contrast to this quote from Rebecca Solnit, provided by Cory Doctrow at bOING bOING.
The term “elite panic” was coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers. From the beginning of the field in the 1950s to the present, the major sociologists of disaster — Charles Fritz, Enrico Quarantelli, Kathleen Tierney, and Lee Clarke — proceeding in the most cautious, methodical, and clearly attempting-to-be-politically-neutral way of social scientists, arrived via their research at this enormous confidence in human nature and deep critique of institutional authority. It’s quite remarkable.
Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don't become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surface — that was very clear in Katrina. Timothy Garton Ash and Maureen Dowd and all these other people immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started writing commentaries based on the assumption that the rumors of mass violence during Katrina were true. A lot of people have never understood that the rumors were dispelled and that those things didn't actually happen; it's tragic.
But there's also an elite fear — going back to the 19th century — that there will be urban insurrection. It's a valid fear. I see these moments of crisis as moments of popular power and positive social change. The major example in my book is Mexico City, where the '85 earthquake prompted public disaffection with the one-party system and, therefore, the rebirth of civil society.
Doctrow talks about why this is important.
In crisis – in the horrible, slow-motion, global economic/environmental catastrophe that we inhabit – we form theories about how everyone else will react and plan accordingly. When Katrina hit, people nodded when soldiers and mercenaries shot “looters” in New Orleans, convinced that looting was the sort of thing that transpired after disasters. That was news. Hardly noticed, months after the fact, was the truth that there was practically no looting in post-Katrina New Orleans, and that those shot – particularly those shot by Blackwater mercenaries – were innocents who’d been killed in the service of a lie: the lie that human beings are bad, and that the first thing we do when the veneer of civilization falls away is kill, rape, and/or eat one another. This lie was a racist lie, and it was a speciest lie, too.
This is the worst kind of lie: the lie that makes itself true. When enough people believe the libel against the human race, the vile calumny that “human nature” would have us all at each others’ throats were it not for coercive force, it becomes a truth. If you are sure your neighbor will kill you when the lights go out, the natural thing to do is kill him at the first flicker – and even if you’re more reasonable than that, you still won’t want to let a potential killer into your shelter; you won’t want to share your food with him; you won’t want to take in his children when they need it.