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So how much more worried will we be this time? How much more uneasy will we feel as we go about our normal lives? The bombing attack at the Boston Marathon has again reminded us that we are not as safe as we’d like to think we are, and forced us to confront the reality that there are angry, violent people out there who want to kill vulnerable, defenseless people, like us.
Was this the act of foreign anti-American extremists, like those who turned airplanes into weapons on September 11, 2001? Or was it the rage of domestic anti-government types, like Timothy McVeigh and his accomplices who detonated a truck bomb outside the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people and injuring 680? Monday was, after all, Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, a holiday commemorating the start of the Revolutionary War, when people with “free and fiercely independent spirits,” as President Obama put it, were ready to act out their anger at an oppressive government.
It is random, unpredictable, and so easy to do. Against all that uncertainty, we feel powerless to protect ourselves and our loved ones. That is terrifying.
Or does it really matter who did it, or why? Maybe what matters most to our sense of vulnerability is just to be reminded of it. Terrorism works precisely because it can happen anywhere, anytime, to anybody, and by anyone. It is random, unpredictable, and so easy to do. Against all that uncertainty, we feel powerless to protect ourselves and our loved ones. That is terrifying.
And terrorism catches us off guard. It rips us harshly and suddenly out of our comfort and complacency, calling from our subconscious the always lurking — but mostly suppressed — truth that we are never truly safe.
A friend of mine who was at the finish line to watch her 20-year-old daughter was just yards away from the larger explosion. She wept as she described how quickly everything changed, “We were waiting for Jesse to show up, and then it went from this moment where we were so excited — to this just horrendous event.”
Certainly the details will matter. The specifics of who did it and why give each of these attacks their own unique emotional impact. McVeigh and his right wing militia partners killed 19 children and injured dozens more by placing their bomb outside a day care center. The scale of 9/11 and the images of the burning, collapsing towers were horrific. Monday's bombings were uniquely shocking because they came during a big civic celebration, one of those festive public parties when all differences between people melt away and we celebrate a rare moment of happy unity.
A TV reporter put it this way, “It was the perfect day. It was a showcase of everything that is good. And then in a moment... it was a moment of the most terrible possibility realized. If this isn’t safe, what is?”
The details become significant as each of us tries to calibrate: Could that happen to me? To my loved ones? An attack on a symbolic date makes attending other large gatherings on symbolic days feel scarier. Attacks in urban areas scare city dwellers more than those who live in small towns. We look for patterns in the details that help us gauge just how vulnerable we personally might be.
Anytime we see smoke rise as ambulances carry away the dead and injured, we are reminded that no matter how long the odds, it really can happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone of us.
And of course we want to know, need to know, the details of each attack because understanding makes us feel safer — gives us the sense we can prevent similar attacks in the future. Indeed there might have been more of these attacks but for the investigation of all those earlier episodes that helped authorities thwart recent attempts. But then something like this happens, and it reminds us of how false our sense of security actually is.
As someone who studies risk, I understand that statistically, the risk of terrorism is tiny. Most of the time we’re safe. And even when these horrific attacks occur, in the big picture, the casualties are relatively few. But that doesn’t reduce the fear. Anytime we see smoke rise as ambulances carry away the dead and injured, we are reminded that no matter how long the odds, it really can happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone of us.
As it did after Oklahoma City and 9/11, the acute fear will fade. It always does. We can’t live our lives on constant high alert. But it won’t ever completely go away. That’s the broader evil of what happened in Boston on Monday. It’s another invasive, corrosive reminder that we are vulnerable, and that we are not, nor can we ever be, as safe as we would wish.
This program aired on April 17, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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