The Boston Marathon Bombings and the Overview Effect

Written by Frank White.


At first glance, the Boston Marathon bombings and the Overview Effect have little or nothing in common. Terrorism uses a rigid ideology to justify attacking others, while the view of the Earth from orbit or the moon tells us “we are all in this together.” On closer examination, however, there is a connection that offers real hope for the future.

In 1983, I ran the Marathon, and it was one of the peak experiences of my life. Well, I should say that I finished the Marathon, because I walked half of it and ran half of it, and—as far as anyone could tell—I was the last person on the course. It took me seven hours and ten minutes.

I had taken up running only the year before for a variety of reasons.

When I decided to participate in the Marathon, I had never run anything longer than a 10K race, and I knew I would have to do it in my own way. Walking half of the course and running half of it seemed possible.

A friend who drove alongside me the whole way and provided me with water ran up to a TV crew and said, “Do you want to interview the last person to finish?” They said, “Yes,” and I was on TV that night, and on the radio the next day. I have sought notoriety in the past without success, but this time, when I did not expect to generate anything other than funds for the cause of world hunger, I got more attention than I ever expected. I was reminded of the saying by Jesus in the Bible that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”

Like many of those who ran this year, I did so for a cause, and I loved it. At a meeting that took place after the race, the leader asked all the runners in the group to rise and we received a standing ovation. I knew, in a small way, what it was like to be a hero.

An Overview Moment

The feeling of the Marathon at the beginning of the race is amazing. Except for the elite runners, it is not a competition, but a great cooperative venture among people who care about the world. For me, it felt like an “Overview moment,” where the spirit of oneness among the runners and spectators overcomes any feelings of separation. Having people cheering you along the route is also very special. Runners and spectators—all are one.         

Many people have their own Marathon stories, and I’m not unique in that regard. Like them, I love the Marathon because of the feelings it evokes.

The runners go right through the center of the town where I live, and on the day of the bombings, I walked down with a houseguest to watch them pass through. As always, I was inspired by the many different runners, from a guy in a business suit to a soldier in camouflage, to an older man about my age, who seemed to be doing well. Many were charity runners. It was around 12:30 pm.


A lot of the runners that I saw at midday were likely crossing or approaching the finish line when the bombs went off. Right away, relatives from Mississippi called to tell me what was happening and ask if we were all right. As with 9/11, the world suddenly changed and it was hard to do anything other than watch television. I canceled everything except an interview that with a reporter for New York Spirit magazine. It was important to speak to the fact that our work on the Overview Effect is an ongoing way to respond to this kind of violence and hatred.

Curiously, I was more sad than angry. Something deeply important to me and to my city had been stained forever. I wasn’t sure how to get that Overview feeling back again. I mourned the victims, who were simply enjoying a special event that means to much to all of us.

This question of what to do permeated the lives of everyone in the Boston area during that week. I decided that not being distracted from the Overview work was the best way to counter the terrorism, and I participated in events that had been put together in response to the bombings as best I could. I also communicated with my Extension School class about it. I suggested to them that everyone working for a nonprofit is doing something about the bombings because we are trying to make the world a better place.

A troubling insight

I also shared with a number of people a troubling insight about my own reaction to the bombings: I realized that I was shaken by the events because they happened locally. However, I read in the paper every day about bombings in Baghdad and Kabul, and I don’t react because I don’t know the places or the people.

This directly contradicts the philosophy of the Overview Effect, which is that we are all connected. The first question everyone asked on Monday was, “Did you know anyone who was killed or hurt?” And all of our friends and relatives were emailing and texting to find out if we were all right. This is a natural human response, and I am not judging it. However, I realized that I needed to change how I looked at it, and that I ought to be just as sad and outraged when bombers kill people in faraway places as when they do it in Boston. The level of violence around the world is simply unacceptable.

At this point, though, something good began to emerge from the evil we had seen on Monday. The people of Boston and surrounding communities began to say things like “We’re all in this together,” and we felt that the Marathon spirit of oneness and cooperation was going to get us through it. The authorities who were involved in the investigation also seemed to have a high level of cooperation rather than competing for the limelight.  Instead of being angry and vowing revenge, we focused on comforting those who had lost loved ones and those who were injured. We told and retold the stories of those who risked their own lives to help others on that day.

Something unexpected

I began to feel that the Overview Effect was actually at work after all, in how the people of Boston were responding to the tragedy. There was another way inwhich this was true, which was the use of social media to involve everyone in solving the crime. We don’t normally think of it this way, but Facebook, Twitter, and other online communications capabilities exist because of the “technological Overview Effect.” Without satellites, they would not be able to link us into one cooperating entity, reflecting the unity seen by the astronauts from orbit and the moon.

At the request of law enforcement, amateur detectives began pouring over pictures of the finish line, trying to help authorities find the perpetrators. Others shared their pictures to build up the database in an unprecedented “crowdsourcing exercise.”

Of course, we did not know it, but there was a second act to follow that first, horrific one. Once the pictures of the alleged bombers were released, tips began pouring in, and the brothers bolted, which eventually led to their death and capture.

Throughout the day on Friday, we were again glued to our television sets as the police hunted down the perpetrators and gun battles erupted in locales extremely familiar to us. Once again, everyone came together, working with the law enforcement agencies during an unprecedented lockdown of the metropolitan area. An alert homeowner spotted something suspicious going on with his boat, and the rest is history.

Vigilant, but not vigilantes

When it was over late Friday night, the spontaneous celebration and applause for those who had finally captured suspect #2 was genuine and focused more on thanking the first responders than on a prideful chest-thumping, and I was pleased to see that. As one commentator on the radio said, “We were vigilant, but we were not vigilantes.” Most people in the area wanted the remaining perpetrator to be captured alive, so that he could be interviewed and we could understand what more completely what had happened. There was no lynch mob mentality.

It all came together as an “Overview moment” at the Red Sox game on Saturday. The idea of “We are one,” and “Boston Strong” was everywhere. The Sox put together a moving ceremony honoring the law enforcement personnel who had been involved in the situation and had had little rest for a week, as well as the victims and heroes of the bombing.

Our brothers and sisters…

Then, the announcer said something to the effect that “we have appreciated the messages of support for us from around the nation and the world,” and “In the spirit of the moment, we also want to express solidarity with our brothers and sisters in West, Texas, and in Sichuan province in China, who have suffered through a devastating earthquake.”

There! That was the feeling of unity not only in Boston but with people around the world who were suffering. I emailed a friend in San Francisco that it would have been hard to imagine, even a couple of weeks earlier, Red Sox fans reaching out to people in China and thinking of them as their brothers and sisters! This was the compassion and sense of oneness that is the essence of the Overview Effect, and it was wonderful to see it emerge in another Boston treasure, Fenway Park.

One of the insights we get from the Overview Effect is this: even though we see great diversity and even chaos on the surface of our planet, all of this is taking place in a context of beautiful unity. Chris Hadfield, current commander of the International Space Station reminded us of this when, on the day of the bombing, he tweeted out a lovely picture of Boston at night. He included a message to the effect of “A somber spring night in Boston.” This image went up on the Overview Institute’s Facebook page, and we shared it with many others.

Chris Hadfield’s picture comforted many of us as we saw, once again, that there is a wholeness to our world, even when it seems fractured. As astronaut Ron Garan has said, the Earth is a “fragile oasis” and we need to take the “orbital perspective” and try to make life on Earth as beautiful as it appears to be from space.

Patriots Day and Earth Day

It is a striking coincidence that the bombings took place on Patriots Day, a local holiday that marks the beginning of our nation’s fight for independence from Great Britain. Shortly afterward, we celebrated Earth Day, which calls to mind the wonderful pictures sent to us by the Apollo astronauts, and marks the beginning of a global awareness of our interdependence. These two days are not in contradiction to one another; each marks an evolution in human thought that was appropriate to its time.

In the end, terrorism—does not work if people come together and refuse to be terrorized. If our entire planet can unite the way Boston did in response to these bombings, we can make the most of the great adventure that awaits us—evolving into the universe.

If we can do that, “Boston Strong” will become “Earth Strong” and the Overview Effect will become the underlying philosophy of a new world built not on fear and terror but on optimism and opportunity.