Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The worst day

I'm still trying to collect my thoughts after yesterday, so bear with me. I do not have any physical injuries from yesterday's bombing at the Boston Marathon. I did not even attend this year - if I had, I likely wouldn't have been anywhere near Boylston Street. As far as I know, none of my family or friends sustained physical injuries either. The psychological injuries aren't going to end quickly, though.

Much of the commentary I've read in the last 24 hours has mentioned the "innocence" of the event. For me, this is true on a personal level. My memories of attending the marathon are as a youngster, with my family. We didn't go every year, but when we did, we would usually find ourselves in the Boston College/Chestnut Hill areas. I remember vividly bringing a picnic lunch and a battery-powered radio to listen to the race, while watching runners filed by. One year, my mother was asked by a policeman to get out of the tree she had climbed. It was school vacation week, the trees were blooming, and I got to hang out in Boston watching a world-famous event. We often look back at things we didn't appreciate at the time - this wasn't one of them. I knew it was pretty special.


I don't know whether there is a science to the stages of grief. I do know that the first stage, "denial" is the most terrifying, at least to me. It's the place where I can't accept what is happening in front of my face, a dissociation with reality.

I'd flipped the marathon off yesterday about 45 minutes before the bombing. I had quite a bit of studying to catch up on, I'd seen the winners and other elite runners come through, seen their interviews, watched some of the mid-race coverage, with the poor Channel 4 field reporter trying to interview runners while running. At one point, they interviewed volunteers who had administered first aid to a runner who had developed a blister on his foot. Back to Copley Plaza to hear the Ethiopian national anthem. Contendedly, I shut off the television to focus on studying. Well, half focus. I had my notes in front of me, but also my computer.

Poking around on gmail, a friend sent me a message - "are you following this?" I had no idea what he was talking about, but there was an ominousness to it. He said there were explosions at the marathon. I went back into my living room, flipped the television back on, and watched in horror. I tried calling my wife and my parents, but wasn't able to make outgoing calls, which added to the feeling of hopelessness. I knew they weren't in Boston, and they knew I wasn't there, so it wasn't a case of a safety check. More of a "what in the world is happening?" My mind continued to race. "Maybe it was an electrical explosion - I bet it was an electrical explosion, with all those people downtown, it must be a real strain on the electrical grid, maybe it overloaded." As though that made sense. "This can't be happening. This can't be real." Just two hours earlier, I'd been commenting how beautiful it was out, exulting on the Red Sox victory, thinking about how wonderful the name Lelisa Desisa was... and now, none of that could be further from my mind.

Actually, that's not entirely true. How beautiful it was out kept creeping back into my mind. The last couple years, it's seemed that the marathon hadn't had much luck with the weather. Last year the temperature topped 90 degrees, the previous year they'd run in a Nor'easter. This year though, it was the perfect weather for the event. A little cool, sunny, not too much wind. Perfect for both runner and spectator.

Maybe it's cliche to reference the last attack that had this sort of effect, but it was impossible not to. September 11, 2001 was a sunny, clear day - a bit warmer than yesterday, but a similarly blue sky and light wind. In the early morning that day, I showered and made my way to Professor Johnson's class on Democratic Theory, an almost uncanny forum to discuss events that nobody yet understood. As the day continued, hopelessness, knowing that, not only was there no way to change what had happened, but there was not a real way to prevent these things from happening in the future.

In the last 24 hours, the same hopelessness has set in, but with more immediacy. I live maybe four miles from the finish line. I walk at least part of Boylston Street on probably a weekly basis. It's no exaggeration to say that I've been on that stretch of road hundreds of times. Usually my thoughts revolve around how beer is too expensive at the nearby restaurants, how I need to check out the map collection at the library, or how I'm so stupid to be late for whatever I'm supposed to be doing. I feel a strong attachment to the place and event that yesterday's horror occurred, an attachment that will never again be quite the same.


There's another level of heartbreak, though, one that I didn't feel in 2001. Whatever the "outcome," whoever is "responsible," we're going to jump to too-easy conclusions. If it was Islamic fundamentalists, people will claim it confirms their ideology. Same as if it was anti-government groups. If there is a resolution to this, it will be followed by someone showing how this tragedy proves their worldview correct. That, frankly, might be the most heartbreaking. In the immediate aftermath - and I mean immediate - the divisive statements had already begun. I fear that the divides we have created are permanent. Maybe they were always there, and the immediacy of current media brings them to the forefront, but I can't shake an overwhelming sadness that we cannot, in the end, all get along. Unity is only possible if people can understand those they disagree with, but instead of identification and compassion, we choose to demonize. Consistently. These are some of the worst offenders. If you read that post and think "but hate is coming from the other side too!" then you are a) an idiot, and, more importantly b) part of the goddamn problem. These are not "sides." I've seen a lot of references, in the aftermath, to good overcoming evil. But evil doesn't start with killing 8-year-olds with a homemade bomb. It starts in a much more benign way, by demonizing those you disagree with as less worthy, as less of a person.

Perhaps we, as a nation, can get through this. But we won't get through it simply by penalizing those who perpetrated the individual action. Instead, we will get through only by not punishing the innocent, by not claiming ideological and moral superiority, no matter the result. If we cannot do that, then the American experiment has failed.

Deep down though, I want - I need - to be optimistic. Maybe it's part of acceptance, or maybe it's simply denial, but I suppose the reason isn't important. Let's get together and get through this.

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