The bombs in Boston have struck us in two ways. There is the shock and horror of a new attack, a new day of infamy, a new cause for grief. And yet in confronting this new horror, we encounter an old story in all its tawdriness, smallness and desperation.
New Englanders appreciate the Boston Marathon as a springtime festival of sport and patriotism. It occurs on Patriots Day, a holiday in Massachusetts and Maine marking the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. The Red Sox play at 11:05 a.m. in deference to the Marathon, adding to the holiday atmosphere.
Those participating in the Marathon engage in a grueling physical ordeal for the sake of the challenge, and those who cheer them on celebrate the runners’ physical prowess. On Monday, in the midst of this happy occasion, someone set off two bombs, and soon all of us were exposed to video and audio depictions of the chaos, blood, grief and fear. Stories filtered out from people who were there, recounting the heroism of bystanders and rescue workers and the anguish of those who suffered losses.
One of the unfortunate effects of an act of terrorism like the Boston attacks is that quickly most of us begin to wonder who would have done it and why. And so quickly we become absorbed in what we imagine to be the thinking of whoever it was who planted those bombs. Soon we find ourselves drifting into the netherworld of paranoia, alienation, anger and desperation, trying to find an answer as we trace the effects back to their likely cause. There is never a satisfactory answer.
Over the years we have become acquainted with a rogue’s gallery of small and otherwise inconsequential people who have made their splash in the current of history by acts of terrible destruction. We could trace that history all the way back to John Wilkes Booth. There are other names — Lee Harvey Oswald, Timothy McVeigh, Jared Loughner, James Holmes, Adam Lanza.
And there is the name of Osama bin Laden. The experience of Sept. 11, 2001, is still fresh in many ways. We remember people emerging from clouds of smoke, faces twisted in fear and grief. The scene was repeated on a different scale on Monday in Boston.
And since this has become an old story, we have learned some lessons; the words of President Obama reflected one of them. In his statement Tuesday he said: “So if you want to know who we are, what America is, how we respond to evil — that’s it. Selflessly. Compassionately. Unafraid.”
Unafraid is a word we ought to keep in mind. Attacks like that in Boston naturally create fear, anxiety, anger. But we have been here before. Being unafraid means we will not allow our fear and our anger to undo us. The authorities will press ahead with their investigation, and the victims and onlookers will experience their losses. But in the face of that awful experience, it is possible to carry on with our heads high, without panic or reckless action.
There is much to learn about what happened in Boston — in fact, there is everything to learn. Was it part of a foreign conspiracy, like Sept. 11, or was it a plot hatched in the perfervid brain of a homegrown zealot?
Terrorist acts of this sort are called cowardly because the killer stands at a distance, out of danger, to attack innocent, vulnerable people. That is cowardly. It is courageous to act in the face of cowardly acts with strength and restraint, force and reason, vigilance, compassion and devotion to friends, neighbors and country.
As marathon runners know, it is possible to run through pain. We need to keep on running, confronting anew that old story, which, we fear, will be told again and again through the years whenever the goodness of humanity stands vulnerable to harm, which is always.
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