America was reminded yesterday of her vulnerability. Friendly neighbors and vast oceans once buffered the American homeland from the violence and savagery of other parts of the world. Yet now the world has grown too small for that. Technology, liberty, and the global clash of ideologies have made us vulnerable. It’s unthinkable that an army should invade the United States. But there’s little we can do against loose networks of angry young men inspired by pseudo-religious fantasies to claim as many innocent lives as they can.
After 9/11, the American homeland was largely spared. Bali, Istanbul, Madrid, London, Islamabad. Now we have to add Boston to the list. Another attack, another day of carnage, another blood-stained street. Another day of blaring press reports, another emergency presidential address, another fog of war where confusion reigns and rumors rise and fall.
Something so horrific cannot become routine. But it can become familiar. That deep lurch in your intestines when you first hear the news. The fear for friends and loved ones who might have been harmed. The pall that hangs over the day as bloodstained bits of information begin to filter through the news.
When the terrorists struck the World Trade Center in 2001, I lived an hour away in New Jersey, and drove north to see the plumes of smoke arising from the craters where the Twin Towers had stood. Two of the four planes employed in the attacks had left from Boston. We moved to Boston a year later, and adjustments to airport security were still being made. We lived in Boston for eight years, and in our final year I wandered through the Copley Square area where the marathon ends. It was a beautiful day and a jubilant atmosphere, as racers crossed the finished line and were greeted by their families and friends. Music played and foods were sold on the street. This was the area the bomber exploded yesterday, in an area thick with spectators. The attack was meant to kill and maim as many as possible, on Patriot’s Day in the city most associated with American independence.
We do not yet know the purpose or ideology that lurks behind the Boston Marathon Massacre, but we can call it a terrorist attack. It was an act of brazen public violence far from any battlefield, at a symbolic and strategic time and location. Terrorist attacks are not merely acts of aggression. They are acts of communication, acts of social sabotage, efforts to shatter our sense of security and explode the gears of our society and economy.
It’s too early to say much about this bombing apart from prayer for the victims and praise for the heroes who helped in the aftermath. But I, at least, have been overwhelmed with two feelings.
FIRST, the world has changed irrevocably. There was a time when it made sense for armies to form long lines that would fight one another on horse or on foot. Warriors on your left and on your right minimized your vulnerabilities and prevented the enemy from flanking you. Then, when the gun became the preferred weapon of war, it took time for the world to appreciate how the rules of battle had changed. In the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, the armies by and large still lined up in the same battle-lines, now to fire at one another across open fields. Guns in general and the machine gun in particular changed all of that. So armies dug trenches or built obstacles and sought to occupy strategic, defensible positions. Just as the castle was rendered obsolete by the invention of the cannon, so battle-lines were rendered absolute by modern weaponry.
Today, battle-grounds are losing their sense. The entire world has become a battleground. The enemy does not step forth to meet our soldiers upon the battleground because it does not serve their purposes. They do not stand a chance against our military, and they do not much care to kill our soldiers anyway. They do not merely want to defeat our armies. They want to destroy our society. They want to defeat our will. So they meld in with the civilian population and seek to maximize civilian casualties (and therefore damage public support) from any attack on their home soil, and they infiltrate our own nation and attempt to break and infect us from within.
The world has changed. It will keep on changing, but it won’t change back.
SECOND, we are vulnerable and will remain so for the foreseeable future. After 9/11, the hope seemed slim that major terrorist attacks would be prevented again on American soil. Yet they largely were. Our early efforts served to disrupt al Qaeda and focus its efforts overseas, in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. They were so successful that Americans were lured, I think, (back) into a false sense of security. First the capacity for massive and coordinated attacks was degraded; then improvised explosive devices were only found in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was violence and death, but it was over there, faced not by eight-year-old boys but by brave young men and women who were strong and prepared to deal with it.
What the Boston attack means is that IED’s have come to the American homeland. We dreaded this day. It seemed inevitable. In fact it was surprising it took so long to come. The kinds of homemade explosives that have done so much carnage against American soldiers are now planted in places like Boston.
The point is not to be afraid. The point is not to stoke the fear of the populace and demagogue that fear for partisan political ends. The point is merely that we, like the rest of humanity, are vulnerable to the whims of madmen. We can be wives awaiting our husbands at the end of the race – who find themselves suddenly holding their bleeding children. We can be men standing in the crowd – who are suddenly summoned to help the wounded who have lost their limbs.
So we live with courage. We refuse fear. We renew our bonds with one another, our commitment that whatever our differences, in the moment of need we protect and we serve and we stick together. We soldier on for the things we believe in. We are not weakened but strengthened by the recognition of our vulnerability, our humanity, how fleeting life is, how fragile are the pillars of social order — and therefore how much we should cherish and appreciate them. So we hold our children a little tighter, enjoy the beautiful day a little more, because we never know how long the good things in our lives will last.
In one frame of reference, 9/11 seems like a lifetime ago. In another, it feels like it was just yesterday.