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Soft Targets, Hard Choices: Post-Manchester, Weighing The Pleasures — And Risks — Of Crowds

In good times and in bad, writes Joanna Weiss, we find meaning in the rarity of togetherness. In this photo, people cry after a vigil in Albert Square, Manchester, England, Tuesday May 23, 2017, the day after the suicide attack at an Ariana Grande concert that left 22 people dead as it ended on Monday night. (Emilio Morenatti/ AP)
In good times and in bad, writes Joanna Weiss, we find meaning in the rarity of togetherness. In this photo, people cry after a vigil in Albert Square, Manchester, England, Tuesday May 23, 2017, the day after the suicide attack at an Ariana Grande concert that left 22 people dead as it ended on Monday night. (Emilio Morenatti/ AP)
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I don’t know what you flashed back on, when you first heard the news about the bombing in Manchester, but it must have been something. For me, it was a Taylor Swift concert at Gillette Stadium two summers ago. For much of the night, the scene must have resembled an Ariana Grande concert an ocean away: Thousands of tween and teen girls in an infectious state of bliss, singing along to the lyrics as if they were prayers.

That’s what a concert is to a young girl, or a boy, or an adult: A collective experience that’s more important, more valued, for the sharing. A baseball game in the heat of summer functions that way, too — or a basketball game in a sweaty stadium. We find meaning in the rarity of togetherness. Our days are filled with conflict, in school hallways and office corridors, in the bickering that emanates from cable news. So for a few short hours, it’s blissful to know that the thousands of strangers around us are thinking and hoping the very same thing, mouthing the very same words.

And so the instinct that kicks in after a terror attack like the one in Manchester — to scoop up the kids and lock them in a tower, to cloister ourselves at home and watch the world safely on TV — is akin to the feeling of being robbed.

So for a few short hours, it’s blissful to know that the thousands of strangers around us are thinking and hoping the very same thing, mouthing the very same words.

That was, of course, my first thought after I heard the news: I’m never taking my kids to a concert again. Not in this world. And then I remembered some of the other collective moments from my past.

As a high schooler, I went to a Billy Joel concert — for East Coast suburban kids, this was Mecca — and wondered what it must feel like to be the guy onstage, knowing the cheers and screams and cigarette lighter flashes were all directed at him.

As a twentysomething, I stood deep in the crowd at a Morphine show, felt like something magical was happening, realized that everyone around me knew it, too.

In my thirties, I watched slow-motion disaster from the nosebleed stands of a Red Sox-Yankees playoff game — a year before a curse was lifted — and suddenly understood, in my bones, the exquisite pain that generations of New Englanders had felt.

In my forties, I took a 6-year-old boy to a “Wild Kratts” live show and watched thousands of small kids gaze in awe at two guys from TV who had suddenly turned real. They shouted out the name of the same obscure animal, all at once. (Caught up in the bliss, I bought some merchandise I probably shouldn’t have. These things happen.)

So all we have left is this cold comfort: The sorrow and frustration we’re all feeling now is something we’re feeling together.

Would I have wanted to miss any of these moments? Not a chance. And so the calculations begin: What are the risks? What are the odds?

From the clinical standpoint of statistics, you realize that, while these things happen, they probably won’t happen to you.

From the clinical standpoint of public safety, you realize: They still might.

We can lower the odds even further, with metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs and grim-faced guards searching bags. But there’s no way to guarantee protection from an evil so determined, so calculated to sow fear in this particular, horrible way. We are probably safe. But not definitely. Any crowd we venture into is a risk.

The pain of that uncertainty is real. But so is the pain of imagining a life without concerts, without those tentpole moments that sear into your brain.

So all we have left is this cold comfort: The sorrow and frustration we’re all feeling now is something we’re feeling together.

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Joanna Weiss Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Joanna Weiss is the editor of Experience Magazine, published by Northeastern University.

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