I watched it again and again on a tiny, flickering screen.
Rage, revulsion, maybe even a hint of despair choked me. In a heartbeat, all of it – the quirky parochialism that is Boston, the odd international bonhomie that is the Marathon, the personal triumph of the runners and the collective joy over their achievement – was shattered, torn to shreds by the blast of a pair of homemade bombs that sent ball bearings tearing through the crowd at more than 700 feet per second.
Far from the blast, those of us who weren’t there could watch on television and on the Internet the acrid, sulfur-soaked smoke cloud rise and if, in our horror, we peered deeply enough, we could see the pool of blood and gore spreading across the sidewalk. That was all that remained of the eight-year-old boy from Dorchester who just seconds before had hugged his father as he stumbled across the finish line. The boy was one of three killed, according to reports. His sister was maimed, his mother grievously wounded along with more than 125 others.
There is no “why” ... There’s only a “what next?” And that, ultimately is up to us. We can hide behind our barricades. Or we can tear them down with our bare hands.
- Seamus McGraw
Lives were lost. Lives were sundered. And through the magic of technology we could see it all, all of it shrunken down to the point where this massive atrocity was small enough to fit onto the screens of iPhones, small enough for us to fit them neatly into our prejudices.
And we did. The farther we were from the gruesome facts on the ground, the easier it was to explain it all in a way that neatly fit into our preconceptions. Let me be clear. We don’t know who did this. We don’t know what fetid fantasy fueled their murderous rage. And yet within minutes – literally minutes – of the first report of the blasts, the shock waves from Boston rolled out across the virtual nation, following the fault lines in our deeply fractured culture.
The Internet was ablaze with all kinds of theories, and in the absence of hard evidence all of them were based entirely on the narrow-minded prejudices of the posters.
It was Islamic extremists, some tweeters and Facebook pundits announced to their like-minded followers. No, it was home-grown right wingers seeking to cash in on the cachet of that peculiar Boston celebration of Patriot’s Day or because it was tax day, or because it was nearing the anniversary of the murderous attack in Oklahoma City or the end-timer conflagration at Waco, said some on the left. Wrong again, it was the U.S. government itself trying to create a bloody crisis to consolidate its own power, wrote those truly crazed on the far, far right.
Though I fought to restrain the impulse, I was guilty of it myself, as I sat there watching the carnage on my own screen. Such horror had to have a reason. Even the president believed that. At a 6:30 p.m. press conference, after assuring the nation that the individual or group responsible would be brought to justice, he pledged that the nation would know not only who did it, but why.
And that is the only thing in the president’s measured, reassuring, and cool-headed response that I took issue with. There is no “why.”
It is a quirk of evolution that has led humans to try to apply reason and logic to truly terrifying events, psychologists and social scientists will tell you, an adaptation that developed to allow us to comprehend threats, identify them the next time, and in so doing, increase the odds of survival. It is also very human to classify those threats based on the tribes we belong to, they say. It has proved to be a very successful adaptation. But it leads us to believe, wrongly, that the random animistic forces that so often send our lives hurling into chaos are explainable, and even more dangerously, that simply by retreating behind our cultural or ideological barricades, we can somehow find safety.
Worse still, that tribalism, which has become so magnified in the age of the Internet, is all too often used by the worst among us to cloak their dark impulses.
Timothy McVeigh didn’t blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, murdering innocent children, because he was outraged over some imagined slight by the federal government, though he desperately wanted you to believe that he did. The blind sheik and Osama Bin Laden didn’t launch their successive deadly attacks against the World Trade Center for principle. They all did it because they were at their core murderous monsters, and it was only because they were too cowardly to face their own twisted souls that they dressed their demons up in ideology.
That pretense to ideology no doubt comforted them. It comforts us.
But it’s deadly.
Far removed from the bloody confusion on the ground in Boston, it was tempting for me to do the same thing that the still-unknown killer or killers no doubt did, to cower behind my ideological bias and pretend that some “other” did this for some reason. There’s great solace in huddling together in fear with those who talk like I do, who dress like I do, who think like I do, to rally with those who rally behind the same cultural flags that I do.
I watched the video of the blast again and again. Each time, I was more frightened and repulsed and with each viewing, I was dragged deeper into my own tribalistic rationalizations.
And then, I stopped. I had to. You see, I had promised to take my son, Liam, to a local planetarium. He’s eight years old. The same age as the little boy from Dorchester who was killed yesterday after hugging his father on the finish line. I certainly wasn’t going to break that promise Monday night.
And so my son and I sat in this vast dark dome last night, watching as a black hole, a massive, ineffable force of unimaginable destruction, spread out over our heads, sucking everything into the void. It was, in its way, terrifying. But the scientists will also tell you that somehow, in a way that for the moment remains beyond comforting proof, all the matter that is sucked into that destructive vortex, a hole so deep and powerful that even time is bent in it, will later be forced out elsewhere as stardust, carbon and gases that become the raw material for further creation.
We didn’t talk much on the way home. And when I sent him off to bed, with a hug that lasted a little longer than usual, I went back to the video of the blast again.
But this time, instead of just seeing the horror, I saw something I hadn’t really focused on, at least not with my heart, the first dozen times or so. At the end of the video, you see cops and firefighters and runners and just regular people, running not away from the blast but toward it. They come up to a makeshift barricade, a stretch of bicycle racks and plastic fences festooned with the flags of all the nations whose runners had participated. Barriers. Barricades. Flags. Things meant to divide us. And with their bare hands, these strangers tore down the dividers and rushed toward the wounded and the dead. There wasn’t time for them to make up theories that would provide some illusory explanation for what had happened, that would explain away the black hole of hatred that was behind it. There was only the fierce urgency of the moment, as uncontrollable as the raw matter that explodes out of the heart of a black hole and the magnificent human impulse to do good.
There is, I realized, no “why” that can ever rationalize the kind of immense evil that took place in Boston yesterday. There’s only a “what next?” And that, ultimately is up to us. We can hide behind our barricades. Or we can tear them down with our bare hands.
Seamus McGraw is a freelance journalist who has contributed to dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Playboy, The Forward, and Readers' Digest. He is the author of "The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone." He can be reached on Twitter @seamusmcgraw, or on Facebook at The End of Country.