Two bombs exploded near the finish line at the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon (today, still, as I write this column). Three are reported dead, along with many more injured. Although the cause has yet to be determined, and despite that our president clearly went out of his way to avoid speaking the words "terror" or "terrorism," it seems clear that this was an act of terror, whether a concerted act or the actions of an individual. The horror of the incident is only compounded by the fact that the 26th mile of this year's marathon was dedicated to the victims of the Newtown Massacre, another act of violence that is still fresh in all our minds.
Any incident in which people are harmed is a terrible tragedy; that goes without saying. But I think that what makes this attack so heartrendingly awful is the personal nature of the crime. The Boston Marathon is meant to be an exciting, inspiring, and unifying event. This holds true not only for the runners who participate, but also for the many people who show up to cheer on those runners, the people holding signs up and shouting in order to motivate friends, family, and total strangers. It's a moving tradition, and to have someone demolish that experience, to destroy it and everything it stands for, well. That feels horrifically personal.
Only one positive thing has struck me in the hours following the event, and that is the surprising amount of hope that seems to be circulating on the Internet. While the news features the same attention-grabbing carnage it always has, the masses congregating on the web tell a slightly different story. Stories of spectators rushing towards the bombsites - towards danger - to help the injured. Stories of volunteers opening their homes to those stranded in Boston with loved ones. Quotes such as this litter Facebook pages and social media sites:
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world." -Fred Rogers
It may not be much, but in the face of such despondency, even a little hope is a welcome beacon.
Despite everything, I tell myself that I'm lucky to live in a country where this isn't a regular occurrence. Bombings and acts of terror are few and far enough between that we can still find it within us to react purely and emotionally. Citizens of many other countries are not afforded even that small luxury.
But as someone who is about to turn 25, I feel I've written far too many articles like this one in such a small number of years.
We are marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in July. In his book about that battle, Michael Shaara has one of his characters comment, "If we are angels, then we are killer angels." I've frequently thought that, if we are fallen angels, then we are a pretty sorry species indeed. If, on the other hand, we are evolved apes, then perhaps we have done rather well for ourselves down the centuries.
The human world seems to seethe with violence. But, in fact, most of us are non-violent most of the time. I don't believe I've thrown a punch in anger since my high school days. During the Vietnam War I enlisted in the Coast Guard so that I could serve my country without killing or being killed in Southeast Asia. I wasn't alone in making that kind of decision.
And Claire's Fred Rogers is correct about the "helpers." Not only do disasters bring out the very best in many of us. Throughout my life I've been shocked and awed by people, some of whom had nothing at all to gain, who have gone out of their way to help me out. I suspect that most of us have had similar life experiences, whether with a teacher or a boss or a Good Samaritan.
A favorite movie of mine is "Love Actually," a collage of interlocking yarns grouped around the Christmas season. The movie takes its title from a narrator's opening line: "Love actually is all around us."
All of this being manifestly true, events such as this week's Boston bombing seem all the more tragic and poignant. The malignant flaw in our human nature - probably the dark side of some ancient survival mechanism - that makes us potentially, and often actually, so violent is the twin brother of greed… another terrible trait which probably has its origins in a primal urge to horde what the clan needed to survive.
These flaws, like fissures in a fine slab or marble or granite, are fundamental blemishes on our souls. The most we can do is grapple with them… in ourselves and in the madmen among us. The human species will never rid itself of them entirely.