The news today was so stunning, so mind-numbingly wasteful. I’ve watched the footage of the two explosions and I still don’t understand how and why anyone decided this was a good thing to do.
Let me just say that I have the misfortune of having a birthday that has been used several times by disgruntled terrorists and murderers to launch their version of mayhem on the American public. I can still remember where I was when the fire broke out at Waco during that debacle. In an ice cream shop, celebrating my birthday with an ice cream cone. Oklahoma City? Happy birthday to me. All those poor people were destroyed in the blink of an eye. For what? Columbine came just after my birthday. Close enough. The image of those students, hands in the air as the SWAT teams moved in, guns drawn, haunted me for years, I just didn’t want to think about what some idiot might do in the name of whatever twisted ideals he grasped on a day when the world should be right long enough for me to celebrate. It’s been so long since the last horror show (Virginia Tech), I had almost come to expect a pleasant week. And now? Boston is forever changed.
You’re probably thinking that my biggest complaint is that my birthday has been forever tainted with the blood of innocents. But it’s so much more than anything as trivial as a birthday celebration. It’s more that we have lost something so precious and it happens to coincide with a time of hope and joy for me. I love spring. I love all the promise of the Easter season and what it represents.
But Boston? Maybe it’s that New York City has borne the brunt of terror attacks for so many years. I have a relative who had the good fortune of arriving in the city late on that fateful day, who still can remember, even though he probably would prefer to forget, the taste, the smell, the sights and sounds of the city on 9/11. I remember someone mentioned about a year ago how imporant it was to see the memorial park. Maybe if you didn’t have that personal, up close, first-hand view. We almost expect terrorists to attack New York or Washington, DC. But Boston?
I’ve walked those streets. I spent my hours at the Boston Public Library doing research. I shopped in Copley Place, where Au Bon Pain was a handy place to grab a bite. I bought soda at the little convenience store around the corner from Boylston. I crossed Boston Public Garden in snow, when the trees were bare, and in summer, when the lush green canopy provided shade from the hot sun. I used to watch the kids skateboard on that wide open plaza that is Copley Square, listening to the rattle of their wheels on the stone surface. When I saw that flash of molten fire against the building, when I watched that runner fall to the pavement just seconds after some powerful wave seemed to strike him down, I wondered if it was near that store that used to have this wonderful hologram design that illuminated the sidewalk in front of the door. I’ve walked to the Esplanade for concerts, stood by the shell and let the sweet sounds of the string section float over me as I drank in every note. I could have imagined a terror attack in so many other cities, but Boston? That’s too familiar. That’s too close for comfort. It’s just so ordinary a place to imagine that some group would choose it as the scene of a terror attack.
And when I think about the victims of today’s bombings, I admit I am baffled. It wasn’t aimed at the rich and famous or the powerful. It didn’t go off as the most elite runners came into the finish line. It was the mothers and fathers, whose children watched in the stands as their parents struggled to make those exhausted legs keep moving to the end. It was the ordinary people who weren’t there for any political rally or cause. They were there for the challenge of running all those miles.
What kind of terrorist group selects such a target population? What kinds of minds prefer those ordinary people as their victims? Maybe that’s what makes the least amount of sense to me. As a terror attack, it feels so unreal. If it were tied to the symbolism of Boston’s heritage in the American Revolution, surely it would not have been so violent. After all, the Boston Tea Party was all about dumping tea in Boston Harbor, not blowing people up. The violence of the Patriots’ war came later, when the protests failed.
As heinous as the Oklahoma City bombing was, at least Timothy McVeigh chose a federal building as representative of his wrath for the government. He was sending a message, one that was abundantly clear given the devastation.
So why did the terrorists choose those victims? Because they were so ordinary? Because they were not the elite? That’s really a big “why” for me. What made them so attractive? Why detonate the bombs at that time, rather than when all the VIPs and the mucky-mucks were ready to greet the world champion runners at the finish line?
Any time I look at a terrorist event, I try to understand why those particular targets were chosen, why those people ended up as victims. Whether it’s a school site and a bunch of twisted young minds who have lost touch with reality, or a group of angry people with a political agenda and a purposeful plan of action, the victims are the ones who often represent something to the perpetrators. In the case of the Boston bombing, that isn’t clear. These weren’t capitalists working in the financial district. They weren’t law enforcement or politically-connected leaders. They were ordinary people there to watch ordinary people cross the finish line. Waiting for a marathon’s stragglers to show up is like watching paint dry. You have to have a personal reason for standing there so long. You’re there for someone else, someone who’s trying to finish a race that would exhaust the average citizen.
Timing is everything, isn’t it? Even during a terror act. I can speculate that the motive for selecting those locations for the explosive devices were the many flags flying as the shrapnel spread its deadly power through the human flesh and the handy news photographers on the scene. But surely they were also present earlier, when the “important” people were around. What was it about these particular victims?
I don’t have an answer, but I have a suspicion. I don’t think it was an accident that these people were targeted. Somehow, some way, somewhere, it all makes sense to the person or persons who planned this horrible act. Maybe we will find that at least one life was forever changed by some senseless bombing elsewhere. Was it an IED in some Middle Eastern country? Did a bomb take out targets in a cafe on a Baghdad street or an explosion rip apart people gathered for a festival in Afghanistan or a drone take out a family in Pakistan? Ordinary people doing ordinary things. One moment life is good and the next, it is forever changed. An eye for an eye. Someone involved in the planning of this incident, this life-changing incident, had a specific reason for picking these people as victims. It would have been just as easy to strike earlier, but the terrorists chose not to do that. They were sending us a message, that no one is ever really safe. It could happen anywhere, to anyone. That’s pretty personal. It’s like when a killer shoots his victim in the face, at point blank range. Lots of rage. Not a lot of emotional detachment. It’s all about the satisfaction of striking where it will hurt the most.
For a brief moment, I even wondered if it was some out-of-control kid wanting to make a name for himself as the new replacement for the wacky school shooters, but I don’t think so. School shooters still have a personal connection to their targets. There’s something that irks them about the victims and something that satisfies them when the killing’s done. And so often, those incidents seem to end in a blaze of self-martyrdom suicide, over the top and blatant, like some Hollywood finale. But this terror attack didn’t seem to have such a side show. In this attack, it seems that the killers got away. Does that mean they plan to fight another day?
But what I don’t understand, given the success at harming so many innocent people, was that the bombers didn’t seem to target the first responders. As I watched all those brave souls rush to help the injured, I thought they were so vulnerable. Surely it was a fear vibrating hard and loud in the back of every mind as the men and women pulled away those barriers in search of survivors. That’s what made it a less sophisticated terror attack than what we’ve seen in other cases.
And again, makes it feel all the more personal. Innocent lives were what the terrorists sought to take. That was all that would satisfy their hunger. They didn’t want to do battle with law enforcement. They wanted to do battle with little children, who had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. They wanted to take out husbands and fathers and uncles and brothers. They wanted to destroy wives and mothers and aunts and sisters. They wanted to rip apart lovers, girlfriends and boyfriends, those whose star-crossed lives would be forever changed by this nightmare. Somehow I expect that when the ash settles, when the shrapnel is collected and examined, we will find that the killers were not some well-trained jihadists with impressive credentials, but some motley crew of people drawn together by their personal anger over some event that profoundly touched their lives, who pulled the cloak of terrorists around their warped shoulders and made their excuses as they packed those bombs with the twisted pieces of metal that would destroy beautiful lives. Such a senseless loss of humanity. How could it possibly serve any purpose? How could it be justified by any measure or semblance of sanity? This was about a group of people with a grudge, who decided that they were going to make sure everyone felt their power by taking out ordinary people, who will never again be ordinary. Senseless violence from the dark side.