Written for the Huffington Post:
When I was seven, I watched terrorists fly airplanes into buildings. When I was five, two teenagers killed their teacher, and then their classmates, and then themselves in an attack on their high school. Before I turned one, a truck exploded in Oklahoma City, killing hundreds and injuring almost 700. And three weeks before my nineteenth birthday, the Tsarnaev brothers allegedly visited brutality on the Boston Marathon.
If it happens over, and over, and over again, should we accustom ourselves to tragedy? To terrorism? Should we become used to breach after breach of decency? Would it benefit us to force ourselves to foresee mass-casualty incidents?
If we had expected Boston, would we feel any less pain?
Every worldview is built on a first premise – the bedrock assumption upon which all else rides. We assume that there exists an Almighty presence – powerful and unseen – and therein we find religion. We assume a basic set of properties – physical rules, features of time and of space – and along comes science. We assume that zero means nothing, and so we have math; that “I” refers to oneself and that “he” refers to another, and so we have language.
And then there’s that broader, less theoretical set of assumptions that guides our behavior. The social norms and societal conventions: we assume that others won’t raise their voices in the library and that they’ll recycle their empty Coca-Cola cans. Then, the expectations of heavier consequence and loftier import: that shoppers will pay for their groceries before they leave the store; that other drivers will stop at the stop sign; that a run through town will go unbroken by IEDs, a sidewalk will be unrattled by nails, and restaurant windows will remain unshattered by bitter reverberations.
The thinker John Locke had his own first premise of human interaction. He called it the “state of nature.” It was the idea that men live in peace until the quiet is breached – until rights are ignored, or disregarded, or assaulted. Change rises out of the embers of injustice. We follow the rules until someone else breaks them.
The rules were broken on 9/11. We shifted our collective consciousness to reconcile the gulf between our American idealism and the hard reality that razed two towers. Did that day change our assumptions, our expectations of one another? Have we become a passive people living in a weary stupor, awaiting the inevitable? A young classroom eliminated at gunpoint. A movie audience mutilated by the bullet. A Patriot’s Day marred by a billow of smoke and ash. All in the same year.
Would we be better off accepting violence as our new first premise?
Maybe. We know that, according to medical authorities at several Boston hospitals, every victim who wasn’t killed on site on April 15 will likely survive. How could that be? “What we saw unfold was the cultural legacy of the September 11th attacks and all that has followed in the decade-plus since. We are not innocents anymore,” wrote one area doctor in the New Yorker. “Everyone’s imaginations have come to encompass these once unimaginable events.”
As the week’s violence drew to an close, we saw a wave of reactions from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s high school and college classmates. They seem jolted. According to one friend, the suspected bomber spoke cryptically about the event just a day after he walked unscathed from Boylston Street – during the crippling confusion that followed the explosions. “Yeah, man, tragedies can happen anywhere in the world,” Tsarnaev said, according to CNN, at a UMass Dartmouth gym, “It’s too bad.”
Tsarnaev cynically voiced an expectation of tragedy. But is it something the rest of us really prepare for? That he was comfortable with expecting tragedy may well have enabled him to carry it out. If we believe violence to be inevitable, why shy away from our guns?
Americans find ourselves shocked, disquieted time and again when terror rears its head. Writing for the Boston Globe, one doctor on the scene shared an alternate perspective on the medical response, saying that he had “never been in any kind of tragedy like this.” Neither had most of his colleagues seen trauma of this sort. “These events are not something the medical community generally prepares for.” Terror and massacre are still the American exception, not the rule.
Yes, the anticipation of moral turpitude is sewn into the fabric of our nation: our government has black hawk helicopters, predator drones, and a nuclear arsenal that could blow up the world several times. The constitution calls for a well-regulated militia. We’re not naïve.
But speaking in Boston last Wednesday, President Obama said that the city had been thrown from a certain “state of grace.” Somewhere, John Locke nodded in approval. In this country, as in Boston, grace is the rule – the expectation. Last Monday was the exception. One day we grieved for the dead, and the next we danced in the streets, celebrating a return to normalcy. The state of grace does not account for improvised explosive devices.
Leon Wieseltier authored a piece in the New Republic earlier this week that critiqued the pervasive American desire to “move on” immediately after tragedy. “Only a stupid society would come away from the events in Boston with its sense of its security unshaken,” he wrote. “There is a scar.”
But it’s important to remember that we’re shaken because we’ve been caught off guard. And though we must always seek to avert that scar, that incision, when we miss the signs or let something noxious slip through the cracks, we should feel deeply shaken.
No, we cannot move on immediately, but the violence in our backyard does not reflect our essential being; it is – to borrow from James Joyce – a nightmare from which we are trying to awake; a truth that we are coping with; a fracture that we are trying to heal. The bombings at the Boston Marathon were a blow to our senses, a tremor within the very ground we stand on. To have expected it would have been a tragedy in its own right. We should be shocked, and we should be appalled.
Premeditated killing is not a circumstance to which we can be sensitized. To get used to death and terror would be to walk down a path that leads only to paranoia and mutually-assured destruction. We can’t get used to it. We must always hurt. If we expect tragedy, then we will let fall the full weight of contempt on every man, woman, or child who looks and talks like the Tsarnaev brothers. If we expect tragedy, then we will come to conclusions about millions based on the actions of two.
When that first premise is broken, our task is to fix it; to walk a cautious and ever-hopeful path; to be grounded by empathy and revel in our capacity to restore and reroute the state of grace when it is breached. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s nineteenth birthday marked the year that he would allow his expectation of violence to overtake him. I pray that mine will usher me into a world in which we assume grace, elude bloodshed, and never grow comfortable with tragedy.