By the time this posts more than two weeks after the event, the Boston Marathon bombing will already have lost most of its impact upon those of us not affected first or secondhand.
Even today, less than seventy-two hours later, a time for shock has mostly given way—generally speaking—to a time for shopping.
And arguably for good reason, this being Mayor Giuliani’s mandate to his shell-shocked constituents, myself included, right after 9/11: get out and get shopping to show those terrorists that they cannot and will not degrade our way of life.
The clarion call to instant resilience was echoed this week by New York Times Op-Ed fixture Thomas Friedman, whose pep-talk column titled “Bring on the Next Marathon” appeared two days after the tragedy.
The piece begins with Friedman recalling a similar scene in Tel Aviv in September 2003, after the carnage shed by a suicide bomber was quickly handled by Israeli rescue workers “with an odd mix of horror and routine.”
Most memorable for Friedman was a comment by the police spokesman: “We will have this whole area cleaned up in two hours. By morning, the bus stop will be repaired. You will never know this happened.”
Taking his cue from this hardened Israeli mindset, Friedman calls for the same response in Boston: immediate cleanup and repair, but no memorialization of any kind so as to deny the goal of such attacks, i.e. to make a lasting mark, to leave a lasting message.
Fair enough. The logic speaks for itself. And given Friedman’s own firsthand experience as a journalist in terrorist hotbeds abroad—his magisterial From Beirut to Jerusalem is a must-read for anyone wanting a better grasp on Mideast geopolitics—his is a voice that certainly bears hearing on the matter.
But then he goes on to claim that after 9/11 we’ve learned to let the terrorists know “they have left no trace on our society or way of life,” and ends the column with an unabashed touch of bluster: “This is our house. We intend to relax here. And we are not afraid.”
Really? 9/11 and other attacks or attempts have left no trace on our society or way of life? Is he serious? Clearly he’s been to an airport lately, as his columns regularly attest. Clearly he recalls that stark dividing line in our national calendar when Americans went overnight from worrying about Y2K to worrying about Al Qaeda.
And we are not afraid? Not even a little bit that inevitably more is to come? Then why do I take solace in the sight of NYPD checking passenger bags in our subway stations? Even if that sense of solace is a fleeting one at best, a false one at worst.
There’s a basic semantic reason that what happened in Boston is called terrorism: because it’s terrifying. And if it isn’t terrifying, then let’s not call it terrorism. Those who like Friedman claim we’re not afraid will have to come up with another word.
Of course we can’t go about our days in paralytic dread, and this seems incompatible anyway with our human makeup except for the clinically disposed. But given the grim news and grisly images from Boston, I’ll stick with the word that works all too well.
While the police spokesman in Tel Aviv would have the carnage wiped from collective memory as soon as possible, the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai shows to chilling effect in “The Diameter of the Bomb” that such willing forgetfulness is not only impossible locally speaking, but cosmically as well:
The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.
The ending is an existential gut-punch, vintage Amichai. And it opens the window onto the dread behind age-old questions that are no less traumatic for being so often asked.
The psalmist’s cry detonates down through the ages: How long, Lord, how long? And with it the implicit cry: Are you even there, Lord?
On the night of the bombing, I went to bed sickened having read that an eight-year-old died and a three-year-old was maimed. Were it my eight year-old daughter killed instead of Martin Richard, my three year-old son disfigured—or, for that matter, my seven year-old daughter gunned down with fellow first-graders in Newtown—I cannot even begin to fathom the spiritual fallout I would suffer.
The diameter of the bomb is traced with a tightrope over a bottomless abyss.
Friedman rightly celebrates the indelible image of some marathoners in Boston running toward the scene of the blast immediately afterwards to help rather than wisely running away lest there be a second.
This brought to mind a similar image from Newtown, when I cried watching footage from a helicopter camera of local police on the ground below sprinting toward Sandy Hook Elementary as fast as they could with guns drawn, not knowing what danger lay ahead and not caring enough for their own safety to stop.
Maybe that’s the only way to go forward on the tightrope.
“Courage is fear that has said its prayers,” the adage goes. For a fitting addition from the Letter to the Hebrews, I add:
“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”