We watch these events unfold through a veil of tears. And over time, it only gets worse as we learn the identities of some of the victims, and learn of the horrors of this particular kind of bomb attack. We wonder if the bomber knew that few would die but many would lose their legs, or if families of living vibrant people, standing together to watch other family members finish their run for some worthy cause, would be turned into a collection of news stories about the dead and the maimed. We also wonder why this target was chosen. Timothy McVeigh attacked a Federal office building to strike a blow against the government. The day care center he blew up was incidental to his goal. Seung-Hui Cho, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold slaughtered people in their classrooms, acts that are impossible to fathom but that at least fit the larger pattern of school shootings. Did this attack happen because it is April, when these things (such as all those just mentioned) tend to happen? Because it was Tax Day? Because it was Patriots’ Day? Was this bomber against runners? Was Boston the target? Was this merely a convenient gathering of Americans to use as targets to make some international terrorist statement? Was this angry white males from the woods of Michigan or the mountains of Idaho striking out against a liberal enclave?
Was it just some kid who thought this would be an outrageoius thing to do?
The bomber used pressure cookers, two of them. Shrapnel was encased in the pressure cookers, I assume using some sort of packing material. Commonly available chemicals were used to make the low grade explosive. The police have hinted (this could be wrong) that they know something of the detonation device. The venue was full of people and many of them possessed cameras and thousands of photographs were taken. There are security cameras. This act was either done by someone who has come and gone and will never be found, or by someone who will be run to ground by the largest law enforcement agency in the world after figuring out the make and model of pressure cooker and where they have been sold, the kind of play-dough used to secure the bb’s and ball bearings, the isotopic signature of the shrapnel and the explosive materials, and the sources of any electronics used in the devices. They will reconstruct the bomber’s shopping list and then investigate every place that list could have been fulfilled. If the bomber is not already gone, after scanning photographs and videos not just of the scene but of every Walmart and Target store that sells pressure cookers and pay-dough and common household items, they will identify the bomber and run him to ground. And when I say “bomber” I mean “bomber or bombers and their associates.”
The horror of this event is shaped like an onion. At the center are the dead, then the maimed, then the walking wounded, then those shocked by the explosion, then those who saw it, or heard it, then the 9000 runners who were not done with the race and were turned back blocks away, and the countless friends and family members at the finish who must have lived anguished hours as they sought out their loved ones with cell phone service overloaded and any plans to use the already confused and chaotic Boston infrastructure to meet up after the race thwarted by the city center closing down, then the people who live in Boston. They, the “Bostonians” (and by that I mean the six million or so who live in the Greater Boston Metropolitan Area including the smallish but dense city itself) were attacked and they can feel that palpably even if they were not near the blast. And, of course, the Americans, and the rest of the world, the outer layers and peel of the onion.
Then there were the people who ran towards the blast, including the first responders. They deserve our accolades but I will not be shy to suggest this: After the attacks on 9/11 2001, first responders and the laws and systems of government they represent were put on too high and too permanent of a pedestal. Osama bin Laden made us fear everything and he made us grant authority too much power. Let’s caution ourselves to not do that this time. We can reward and respect, and meekly thank those who ran towards the blast and those who undeniably saved many lives with their quick action, without losing any more liberty.
Which kind of horror do we prefer this to turn out to be? A kid who thought it would be funny, that’s a horrible thought. A foreign agency, which once discovered could draw us into another endless war with tens of thousands of casualties. That would be horrible. Disaffected Americans full of hate and vitriol, our own people sufficiently deranged by the politics of hate we have allowed to grow, even nurtured, killing innocents instead of just screaming at the children trampling their lawn. That would be its own kind of horror. It would almost be better if we never found out. But of course, we need to find out.
There were people from Newtown Connecticut in the race and watching it, close enough to see the blasts. Many of the racers in this phase of the marathon were those running for causes of various kinds, not the lead racers, not the old guy who finishes last every year under police escort because the race is done but at least he finishes. We wonder if the bomber knew that the blasts would go off while people running to raise money to cure cancer or help the homeless or whatever were going by.
Thousands of people ran away from the blast. Some of them were injured. One man who ran away from the blast site was burned, but he was also brown, and from Saudi Arabia. He got his house searched and he got his interrogation. He will be his own kind of reluctant hero. We hope he holds no ill will, and we can guess that he holds less ill will than the average middle class privileged white male would hold under identical circumstances.
President Obama said there are “no Republicans or Democrats” only citizens. That was wishful thinking. We are already seeing the center and right questioning his use of word, or really, his lack of use of the word “terrorist.” But they should hold their tongues, the angry right. Because this could have been one of them. That would be horrible.
The truthers bring their own horrors to the table, claiming that this event was created by the government in order to get something, but knowing more details of what their argument is means sullying one’s ears, polluting one’s brain. We need to learn to turn away from the truthers the moment we see them coming. They are walking, living, breathing low level acts of terrorism of a kind.
So many Bostonians described the blasts as being “like a cannon going off.” If you are not from Boston, that may sound strange. Who has enough experience hearing cannons going off to know what that sounds like? But that’s Boston. Cannons are frequently fired in the First American City. There are a number of them left over from the old days, kept and maintained and used as very loud alarm clocks or fired off at patriotic events. Bostonians do in fact know what a cannon sounds like when it goes off.
Be good to your fellow humans, your fellow Americans, your friends from Boston, your friends who run marathons and your friends who hear cannons. It is only by chance that they were not ripped asunder by the person who did this thing. This sort of thing has not happened often in this country, and having happened this week does not mean that it will happen often. This means we are lucky, we are not Londoners during the Troubles or citizens of Sarajevo during the siege or Rwandans during the slaughters or Israelis or Palestinians at pretty much any time. But it also means that we are not well prepared to react properly, to adjust reasonably, to act in our own best interest. The attacks on September 11th proved that we are vulnerable to two things: Horrific violent attacks and the aftermath we cause for ourselves by bending to our own desire for authoritarianism, which seems to live inside ourselves right next to our desire for liberty and for just being left alone.
But also, go ahead and be angry.