Saturday, April 20, 2013

When Terrorism Hits Home: Three Reactions to the Boston Bombing Crisis

 The indomitable city

Vicky Kelberer:

I wrote the following on Thursday evening, before the terrorists were killed and captured:

Boston, for me, is an adopted home. When I moved here five years ago, my mother would be the first to tell you that I spent the first week crying and wanting to go “home” to Minnesota. Five years later, Boston is home. It’s where I grew up, and I mean really grew up, into some semblance of an adult. It’s where I met best friends, found my passion in life, found mentors who help me to achieve it, and most importantly, it’s now where I come “home” to when I travel around the world and across the country. The only year since moving here that I missed Marathon Monday, the ultimate Bostonian holiday (even bigger than St. Patrick’s Day, not kidding), I had a dinner of mourning with a friend from Boston since we both were in Switzerland far away from the festivities we love so well.

Marathon Monday, to the uninitiated, is for most Bostonians I know the best holiday of the year. One of my friends described it as better than “Hanukah, Christmas, and my birthday rolled into one” as she gleefully decorated shirts for the marathon celebrations. College students, who make up about a third of Boston’s metro population, get the day off from school to attend a “Kegs and Eggs” breakfast party followed by a trip to Beacon or Boylston to watch the racers and cheer with and for their friends. The families of Boston don their favorite sporting wear – whether it’s a Bruins, Sox, or Celtics jersey – and gather to show their kids what humans can achieve when they put their minds to it. It’s the happiest day of the year quite literally, when a city known for its abrasiveness softens, welcoming citizens from countries the world over to enjoy our little slice of Americana and of course, history.

This Marathon Monday turned tragic as some cowardly piece of human existence (who we now know to be two brothers, who aren’t worthy of being spoken of here alongside the victims) murdered three innocent bystanders and injured over 170 as they stood cheering at the finish line to celebrate their city, whether they were native-born or adopted into the Boston fold. The three Bostonians who lost their lives will forever be remembered as emblematic of the best of us: Martin Richards, the little boy who loved his Bruins and hoped for world peace; Krystle Campbell, a loud, fun-loving girl who in typical Boston fashion selflessly left her job to care for an ailing grandparent; and Lingzi Lu, a Chinese graduate student studying statistics and economics at the great institution I belong to as well, Boston University.

Studying terrorism is a tricky thing: you have to maintain emotional distance as you read articles about why it’s a rational choice for a terrorist to blow themself up in a crowded place. It also just so happened to be what I was doing this week just prior to the Boston Marathon bombings. The key point about terrorism is that it’s a tactic, not an ideology, designed to inflict enough fear on a population that its government has no choice but to let the terrorists have what they want. Whether that’s territorial concessions in some far-flung place, or total destruction of America as we know it, terrorists range from religious fundamentalists to fascists to socialists to people who just really want to blow stuff up. The one thing that they have in common is their cowardice.

As I hope the human detritus who carried out this attack have realized by now, they picked the wrong city to terrorize. We will neither be goaded into an overblown, racist persecution of all those we “think” could be responsible, nor give up our belief in individual liberty and civil rights just to ensure personal security. Boston is the toughest city I could imagine: you can’t scare Boston into doing anything, let alone giving in to the goals of those who would be dumb enough to try. I was so proud of my adopted home as I saw images of my classmates, friends, and fellow Bostonians offering any help they could in the wake of the attack. The terrorists could never win in this city no matter the size of their attack. Boston is too tough, too proud, too strong, and most importantly, Boston is too brave to ever let those who would attack it achieve their ultimate goal: fear.


This is what it’s like to be on lockdown: you eat a lot of weird food. Not having been grocery shopping in a week doesn’t seem like that big of a deal until you can’t order take out for fear of calling someone into harm’s way to deliver it to you. One of my friends ate a spoonful of fudge topping. I ate shredded cheese (actually not weird at all for me), an ice cream sandwich, pancakes, vegetable gyoza, and popcorn. I listened to Blackhawk helicopters circle overhead. I calculated the distance to Watertown – about 3 miles from where I live – and figured that even an injured 19-year-old could make it that far in his desperation.

 Military and police gather on a residential street in Watertown. Courtesy of Torre St. Savior.

The T.V. was on all day, and on lockdown you watch the news despite the awful reporting. My roommate got angry at all of the inaccuracies reported since she started watching the beginning of the saga the night before: “First he’s Arab, then he’s Armenian, then Turkish, somehow Indian, and now Russian – or is it Chechen?” C.N.N.’s finest manage to make you laugh at least, seizing on every single detail and shamelessly sensationalizing it: “They have a dog, we don’t know if it’s a K-9 or a bomb sniffer, or even if it belongs to the police, but it definitely is a dog.”

This is what it’s like when lockdown is lifted: you go have a beer with your friend at the local bar that stayed open throughout the drama. You enjoy the first-world comfort of getting a bottle of wine – a nice bottle of wine – because screw it, it's time to relax. You do work, go to sleep, wake up, and decide to take a walk down BU’s campus. It’s sunny out today, peaceful and returning to normal. Everyone seems a little subdued, from the sorority girls obviously on their way to a mixer (excuse the stereotype but no one dresses like that in Allston on a Saturday morning except this particular group) to the families running errands and the students going to the library.

Runners have new significance, especially the ones in blue and yellow jackets. It’s like an act of resistance in and of itself: you can’t scare us into stopping, we will run our race. Scary as lockdown was, the city has exhaled a sigh of relief and returned to its normal self, just like I’d hoped. I thought of my grandma, aunts, and father’s stories of being evacuated from threats in Lebanon. I thought of countries where lockdown is inconceivable because too many acts of terror occur every day. Life never goes off of lockdown in Iraq or Afghanistan. Having experienced a tiny sliver of it, not even a particularly dangerous one at that, I am so grateful for the comforts we enjoy in this country, the chief of which is security. It was unthinkable that this happened in Boston; it is unimaginable that it happens every day in so much of the rest of the world.

Zach Crawford: 

It began as two IEDs (improvised explosive devices) exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday that took 3 lives and wounded over 170. And last night, it ended with a shootout, car chase, and a manhunt, which led to the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The 19-year-old kid is now in custody after an unprecedented 9,000 law enforcement officials combed through Watertown to find the wounded suspect. Bostonians let out a huge sigh of relief.

The whole week was a blur. For me, Monday was crisis mode. As soon as I heard about the attacks I rushed to make sure everyone I knew was okay, which was complicated by the cell phone interruption downtown. I had a few friends down there for the race, and thankfully no one was hurt. I updated my Facebook status to let everyone that I was okay and so that my line would be left open for my friends in Boston. I e-mailed all of my 53 residents and instructed them to e-mail me back ASAP in order to confirm their status. My friend Christine, who I had been celebrating Marathon Monday with, came to my room crying: her roommate’s friend was missing and no one could reach him. Hoping for the best, we gathered our things and went to Vicky’s apartment to watch the news on TV. Surrounded by my Boston family, I watched the news coverage in the comfort of an apartment miles from the finish line. After a short time, news agencies began broadcasting a video shot from across the street from the explosions. We watched in absolute horror and silence. The screams, the blood—it was complete pandemonium. For a moment, my eyes watered up, my mouth agape. I was shocked, confused, horrified, thankful I wasn’t there, all rolled into one. That was a reality check in every sense of the word, and I’m still having difficulty processing all of these conflicting emotions.

Despite the initial sense of utter shock, I and many other Bostonians found solace in the incredible acts of heroism exhibited by those at the scene. The marathon runners who continued to run to Mass General to donate blood, the people who ran toward the explosion to help out, the amazing heroes at the medical tents who transformed those tents into triages for the wounded and dying. I firmly believe that because of these extraordinary acts of heroism and compassion, the numbers of the dead and wounded were not reversed. Bostonians came together in glorious fashion. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people offered up their homes to stranded runners and volunteers who were displaced by the chaos. Thousands of photos and videos were sent to the FBI for processing in a very public effort to help out the investigation. Boston stood strong, and we refused to be intimidated by these heinous, cowardly crimes. In a time of so many questions and very few answers, I could not help but feel happy that so many people were selflessly helping out during a terrorist attack. It was a very awkward sense of joy.

But then the real complicated story began. Who detonated the bombs, and how, and why? Since there were no persons of interest at this point, everyone in the city was on heightened alert. Suspicious packages were found outside of a courthouse downtown and even outside of one of my classes, both false alarms. There was also word that the Westboro Baptist Church was going to protest the funerals of those killed in the bombings, which was met by an overwhelming revulsion that ultimately called for counter protests. It was a week of mixed feelings: we were glad that the worst was over, proud to be resilient Bostonians yet there was no one in custody and no suspects. The haze didn’t last for long.

Thursday night, reports surfaced of a shooting on MIT campus; one officer was shot and killed in his patrol car and the other was critically injured. I don’t know how I slept soundly, but I did. Until 6AM on Friday. I woke up to calls from my parents, and the requisite BU alerts. A massive manhunt was unleashed on two Chechen suspects. Literally the entire eastern region of Massachusetts was on lockdown. Watertown is just between BU and BC, so geographically our dorm was not far from the action. I quickly sent out an e-mail to my residents instructing them to stay inside, watch the news, connect with loved ones and reach out if they needed someone to talk to. I also checked in with a friend at MIT, and offered him and any of his friends a hot meal and a place to stay if they needed it. Christine came over (from her dorm across the street) and we set up central command: local radio, Twitter, Facebook—the works. It was a long day, living from one ‘BREAKING NEWS’ bulletin to the next, but we waited it out inside. When the manhunt finally came to a close sometime after 9PM last night, we went straight to the liquor store for a bottle of red. The sense of relief was palpable throughout the city.

One concluding point about the media in all of this. From my point of view, I was supremely disgusted at the media’s coverage of the attacks and of the suspects. CNN’s botched coverage of the suspect earlier in the week—prematurely confirming his capture while describing him as “dark-skinned”—along with similar stories that placed dubious importance on the suspects’ ethnicity and religion (see my Twitter conversations with AP and Slate Magazine) really touched a nerve. It is blatant manipulation of the facts that aims to distort our perceptions and ultimately mold reality. The constant suggestions of ties to al Qaeda and the media’s fascination with the suspects’ religiosity and region of origin is very disillusioning, especially if you understand the extent to which these factors are readily (and dangerously) oversimplified and ill-explained. My hope is that Bostonians, and Americans in general, can sift through these illusions and grasp the facts, which are few at this point. Let us take the compassion, solidarity and jubilation from the resolution of these events and build a better understanding of what happened this week. If we want true justice, we must practice it ourselves, so that more people aren’t falsely accused and so that we don’t adopt a discriminatory lens with which we view threats to our national security.

Colin Wolfgang:

What happened in Boston this past Monday was abhorrent, tragic, and has been permanently ingrained into countless Americans’ minds. Personally, I will forever remember the first phone call from a friend back home in New Jersey, asking if I was okay – my day had revolved around early afternoon drinks and fun times with friends, while unbeknownst to me chaos had erupted just miles away. The rest of the day is a blur of heartache and, truth be told, the memories are still fresh and painful, and something I prefer not to chronicle.

However, two interesting things resulted from this heartache for me. First, while nothing will ever come close to being so personally difficult for me to fathom, I have a newfound respect for the international relations I have been so deeply passionate about for so long, and have a fresh understanding of what the “war on terror” really means. Years ago, I was a relatively nascent middle school student, when I was sent home early due to some catastrophe in New York City that I was too young to truly understand. I had numerous friends who lost parents and loved ones in the 9/11 attacks, and it wasn’t until I began taking security-related courses in college that I began to grasp what had taken place that day.

But 9/11 has been, in many ways, placed into the shadows thanks to two costly wars waged in the Middle East, that continue to rack up death tolls of American troops. What the Boston Marathon attacks did for me, was renew my sense of urgency in fighting terrorism; in fact, I have never been more adamant about it. As informed Americans, we read almost daily about a new suicide bombing or some other attack in Baghdad, Karachi, Kabul, and elsewhere in the Middle East. I myself am guilty of overlooking these articles lately, as they are so commonplace as to be relatively uninteresting. However, with Monday’s attacks so fresh in my mind, I am reminded of how devastating terrorism is to a society. It brings about tension and unravels a community in a fashion that virtually nothing else can, and its scars do not heal easily or attractively. The war on terror is as real as it was over a decade ago, and it will be quite some time before my awareness of this fades even slightly.

The second result from the attacks on Monday was a more positive one: the solidarity and patriotism that this country embodies. Chinese bloggers commented exhaustively on how impressive the solidarity was from Americans all over the country – many of whom have never even been to Boston. Nationalism is a quality that exists to some degree in virtually every country in the world; Patriotism, however, is not. The love pouring in from every corner of America on Monday – the love that continues to pour in days later – is a reminder that we are a strong nation and we will support our fellow Americans through every misery they endure. Perhaps this does not comfort those who lost limbs and loved ones on Monday, but to me, this is one of the most significant qualities America possesses – it’s a shame it takes such a horrendous tragedy for us to sometimes see the full picture of what a collective America looks like.

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