Looking for the helpers

by J. Nathan Matias 2023-10-30

If you visit my office at Cornell University, you probably won’t notice the most emotionally-evocative object on my shelf. It’s not the Nature issue I was published in this year, the sword my PhD committee signed at my defense, or even the icon of human rights pioneer Bartolomé de las Casas that hangs just behind my monitor. It’s a little Dell laptop tucked into a corner, a laptop I’ve used for backups and data analysis for ten years, 6 months, and 15 days.

I have an easy way to remember the age of this laptop because the day I set it up was April 15, 2013— the day two terrorists detonated pressure cooker bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. At the time, I was a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, sitting at a table at the MIT Center for Civic Media so I could say hello to colleagues as they wandered by. It was afternoon when the bombs went off, killing 3 people and injuring 281 others. I still have the Google doc where friends reported who was safe.

I had reason to think of that terrible week yet again today, when someone posted violent, pseudonymous, anti-semitic threats against Jewish students at Cornell, prompting an immediate response from the university and law enforcement to protect our students. So far, these threats haven’t materialized, I’m relieved to report. In the meantime, Cornell has posted multiple campus police at the Center for Jewish Living, a residential center that also is one of the only venues in Ithaca that can offer Kosher food. As students and faculty called, texted, and discussed our safety today, I thought about those Cornell staff who are putting themselves on the line for our community.

I also remembered an officer from my time at MIT. Three days after the Boston bombing, I was giving my friend Chris feedback on a fundraiser page to support the family of Martin Richard, an 8 year old boy who was killed in the bombing. One of the iconic photos of Martin was a poster he made in school that read “No more hurting people. Peace.” Late nights at the office are common at MIT, and I stayed late into the evening to work on my laptop, help out Chris and keep an eye on the news. Reviewing my email archive today, I see notes for a memorial jog my friend Matt and I organized, emotional messages with the person I later married, and unopened event invites I never followed up on (uh… sorry White House - I really wasn’t thinking about public records APIs that week).

My inbox from April 18 2013 also includes a cascade of very urgent warnings to remain in the building because an MIT police officer was just shot around the corner. At 10:48pm, the bombers had attempted to steal officer Sean Collier’s weapon, fatally shooting him six times. The lab went into lockdown. I forget which day, but I remember coordinating with other students to round up all of the snack drawers in the building to keep people fed, dragging the couches to the central atrium, and gathering with friends to watch a movie. It was one of the most stressful weeks of my life. And it was the last week for officer Collier, after he gave his life to keep us students safe.

Ten years later and back in Ithaca, I can’t claim any special capacity to weigh the risks. Like others, I’ve seen heartbreaking stories of unconscionable, escalating violence in Israel, Gaza, and here in the United States. As a scientist who studies online violence, I know that no threats like this should be shrugged off. I also know that decent people everywhere can do a lot of good for our friends, colleagues, and neighbors by condemning violence, putting put safely first, and within that reducing the derailing effects of intimidation.

Whenever a community is threatened with violence, leaders and communities face the terrible burden of keeping people safe, encouraging courage and empathy, and helping each other carry on. I also know that for every leader doing the right thing with statements and tough decisions, there are many staff showing up every day and working behind the scenes to keep us safe. I know from experience how deeply they love and care for our students and the whole Cornell community.

In class tomorrow, we will be discussing public goods and the hard work of maintaining them. I’m not going to require students or TAs to attend, and I am posting all materials online, one of my standard accessibility practices. But I’m going to show up, and I know I won’t be alone.

When I introduce the topic of public goods, I usually tell students about that terrible week ten years ago in Boston and the outpouring of care and support that people shared despite the hatred and violence that tore a hole in our city. So when I go to teach tomorrow, I will be especially grateful for the Cornell Police and all the staff working to keep our university open so we can continue to keep a vision of hope and human-kindness alive.