In the aftermath of the bombing of the Boston Marathon, about which many details are still unknown, several thoughts immediately came to mind as the limited facts trickled in.
The first was that it immediately reminded me of the London Underground bombings when I was in a study-abroad program in England in 1999. There, a paranoid schizophrenic terrorist created makeshift bombs (this sort of thing wasn’t common enough back then for us to have a fancy term for it like “IED”) that included a large number of nails in order to maximize injury (and fear), particularly among various minority populations. He set bombs for three straight weekends in April before he was caught, killing three and injuring 139. Four of his victims survived but lost limbs. Sound familiar?
The second thing I thought of was how adept I’ve become at desensitizing myself to these sorts of events. That’s sad in and of itself, of course, but that instinct emanates from an even darker place beneath the surface: I accepted it as a given a long time ago that a nuclear weapon will inevitably be detonated on American soil at some point during my lifetime. I often wonder whether our collective psyche will be able to recover from the various horrors that event will entail, the specifics of which I won’t go into here, to say nothing of the massive death count that would dwarf anything we’ve ever seen.
Naturally, I hope and pray that I’m wrong.
But there’s something else, too. As with any terrorist attack, there are always folks on Facebook and Twitter who are quick to label the perpetrators as “cowards.” I believe this to be a huge mistake—a mistake that matters when formulating a crucial understanding of the enemy we face.
Cowards would be easy foes. Cowards would fear the possibility of being caught. Cowards would tremble at the idea of going to prison on terrorism charges and spending the rest of their lives being subjected to endless abuse of all kinds while incarcerated. Cowards would fear failure of these elaborate schemes. Cowards would fear death, either by accident or by law enforcement.
Terrorists fear none of these things.
Either due to a broken moral compass or mental disorder, or both, terrorists are bold and cunning, not cowardly. The fact that their victims include innocent people is immaterial. Like it or not, executing a successful bombing on American soil takes a certain kind of boldness.
I say this not to praise these monsters. I say it because we do ourselves no favors by pretending as though these monsters are cowards. As I said, cowards are easily dismissed. Cowards can be frightened into submission. Terrorists can’t. Terrorists can only be captured or killed.
I understand the urge to use the “coward” label. It reinforces the idea that we have superior character to our enemies. It theoretically discourages others from attempting such acts by showing them that they will find no glory in it. It makes us feel a bit safer in the face of these horrors, as we convince ourselves that terrorists don’t have true grit.
This is a mistake.
They are not cowards, and deluding ourselves into thinking they are cowards only serves to make us underestimate those who would destroy us, whether domestic or foreign. Better to take the enemy at his word that they will annihilate us if given the opportunity.
That brings me back to the second point. We—or at least I—cannot live in fear. It seems that we’re subjected on a monthly basis to a horrible story involving numerous innocent victims who fall prey to some senseless act of violence or force of nature. We quickly turn to political finger-pointing. This bleeds over into never-ending tributes that, while positive in a way, only serve to remind us of these awful events. If those reminders subside, they do so only when the next horror seizes our attention.
Eventually, this has a cumulative effect that becomes too much for anyone to bear.
I recall a few days after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when I frantically channel surfed to try to find anything that wasn’t footage of people jumping from buildings, planes exploding into fireballs, or talking heads discussing same. At long last, I found something: South Park.
I had reached my saturation point.
So, last night, I read about this story, I saw the footage, and I sympathized with the families of the dead and the wounded. Today, when I get home from work, I’ll watch a movie, play a video game, or write an article about some high school athlete.
This is not out of disrespect or callousness. It is merely an acknowledgment of the simple reality that our modern world means that video footage and/or pictures of every disturbing news story will be available almost instantly after that story happens.
That takes a toll. On all of us.
But only if we let it.
And, if we do, then the terrorists have achieved their primary objective: Instilling feelings of fear in an entire population after committing violence against a tiny, tiny fraction of that population.
I’m not suggesting we forget about the poor souls who were harmed today. I’m only saying we should strike a balance between letting ourselves feel an event like this and letting ourselves be overwhelmed by it.
With that in mind, I’ll conclude by shifting gears totally: Here are two videos I had never seen before today, but, even in the midst of the bombing coverage, they made me laugh almost uncontrollably: