When the bombs went off, we were talking about Miranda. Specifically, we* were talking about David Simon’s treatment of the Miranda warning in his book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. The passage opens this way:
You are a citizen of a free nation, having lived your adult life in a land of guaranteed civil liberties, and you commit a crime of violence, whereupon you are jacked up, hauled down to a police station, and deposited in a claustrophobic anteroom with three chairs, a table, and no windows. There you sit for a half hour or so until a police detective—a man you have never met before, a man who can in no way be mistaken for a friend—enters the room with a thin stack of lined notepaper and a ball-point pen.
The detective offers a cigarette, not your brand, and begins an uninterrupted monologue that wanders back and forth for a half hour more, eventually coming to rest in a familiar place: “You have the absolute right to remain silent.”
The chapter unpacks the rights line by line in a voice-driven hypothetical that functions as narrative exposition, revealing how this aspect of the U.S. criminal justice system works from the perspective of the accused—
You sign your name and the monologue resumes. The detective assures you that he has informed you of these rights because he wants you to be protected, because there is nothing that concerns him more than giving you every possible assistance in this very confusing and stressful moment in your life. If you don’t want to talk, he tells you, that’s fine. And if you want a lawyer, that’s fine, too, because first of all, he’s no relation to the guy you cut up, and second, he’s gonna get six hours overtime no matter what you do. But he wants you to know—and he’s been doing this a lot longer than you, so take his word for it—that your rights to remain silent and obtain qualified counsel aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
Look at it this way, he says, leaning back in his chair. Once you up and call for that lawyer, son, we can’t do a damn thing for you.
—and of law enforcement—
A good interrogator controls the physical environment from the moment a suspect or reluctant witness is dumped in the small cubicle, left alone to stew in soundproof isolation. The law says that a man can’t be held against his will unless he’s to be charged with a crime, yet the men and women tossed into the interrogation room rarely ponder their legal status. They light cigarettes and wait, staring abstractedly at four yellow cinderblock walls, a dirty tin ashtray on a plain table, a small mirrored window, and a series of stained acoustic tiles on the ceiling. Those few with heart enough to ask whether they are under arrest are often answered with a question:
“Why? Do you want to be?”
“Then sit the fuck down.”—
—and of society—
…The Miranda warning becomes a psychological hurdle, a pregnant moment that must be slipped carefully into the back-and-forth of the interrogation. For witnesses, the warning is not required and a detective can question those knowledgeable about a crime for hours without ever advising them of their rights. But should a witness suddenly say something that indicates involvement in a criminal act, he becomes—by the Supreme Court’s definition—a suspect, at which point he must be advised of his rights. In practice, a line between a potential suspect and a suspect can be thin, and a common sight in any American homicide unit is a handful of detectives standing outside an interrogation room, debating whether or not a Miranda warning is yet necessary.
Crafty, engaging, the passage is vegetables disguised as candy, and anyway, that’s what we were talking about when the bombs went off 3.6 miles away, at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
The discussion was dropped; laptops and Twitter feeds were opened. Brent McDonald, a video journalist for the New York Times, studied his screen for a minute or so before quietly getting up and leaving. Out came cell phones; into the classroom came curator Ann Marie Lipinski. Various fellows and their spouses had planned to watch, or report on, the marathon. Where was Borja? Ah, good, here he was, on the phone with Paula. Where was Nathalie? Ah, good, home. This went on for a few minutes, one name after another. The only person unaccounted for was David Abel, of the Globe. He had missed class to shoot a video follow-up to his feature about marathon runner Juli Windsor. Early on, he had worked from Heartbreak Hill, the final climb in the race, but was believed to have relocated to the finish line, in Back Bay. He had indeed been at the finish, we soon learned, and now, like everyone else, was working the most unthinkable of stories.
We gave no thought to returning to class, but at some point someone asked how narratives develop from breaking news, and what a narrative journalist should do under the circumstances. Go? Stay? Start saving string? Half the challenge of narrative is thinking in terms of narrative: how to see it, how to report for it. The tick-tock would be key (build a timeline, work from it), as would the organizational work of gathering the right kind of detail, evaluating it (source material that may seem viable on Day 1 may be downgraded or discarded by Day 3 or even Hour 3), and locating it within the emerging arc.
Three news organizations in particular would soon seem poised to produce the big prose or multimedia narrative, or e-book: the Globe, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. The Globe had already launched an e-singles project on the Whitey Bulger case (with an introduction by Kevin Cullen), and the Times had partnered with Byliner to expand some of its best storytelling and potentially reach new audiences. As the week’s events played out, it was impossible not to see the depth of narrative possibility, and the importance of Story. There were the emotionally powerful moments, like Mayor Thomas Menino leaving his own sickbed in a wheelchair to buck up his city (“We are one Boston”), and reports of double-amputee Jeff Bauman Jr. waking in the hospital to describe one of the bombers (“Bag, saw the guy, looked right at me”), which could not have happened without Carlos Arredondo, the spectator who saved Bauman’s life. And there were the pivotal moments that formed the superstructure and that, in narrative terms, advanced the action: The FBI released photos of the brothers Tsarnaev; hours later in Cambridge, a campus police officer was killed, setting off a chase and a shootout and an epic manhunt; minutes after the city lifted its “shelter-in-place” order, a man named David Henneberry stepped outside at his home in Watertown and discovered blood on his beloved boat, the Slip Away II….
Miranda soon became a part of the story, too. As did, exactly one week to the minute that the first bomb exploded, a profound moment of silence. Even that one minute in the life of the city had a narrative arc, made all the more poignant by its ending.
*The narrative class at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, whose narrative writing program includes the seminar and this website. Our sister publications, for those keeping track, are Nieman Reports and the Nieman Journalism Lab.