Tragedy can bring out the best and the worst in humanity.
I, along with the rest of the country, watched closely as events unfolded after the Boston marathon bombing this Monday.
Having spent much of my developing years in a post-9/11 world (I was 10 years old when the attacks happened), I am all too familiar with the panic and fear that immediately follow a national tragedy. I was homeschooled in the fall of 2001 and spent the morning of September 11th in front of the television; I saw the second plane hit the south tower and can remember with untainted clarity the images of billowing smoke and panicked bystanders. I remember the dazed confusion that followed as a broken nation attempted to piece together a picture of who and why.
When the Boston bombing took place on Monday, a nation collectively returned to the horror of September 11th in a somnambulism of post-traumatic panic. The comforting silos built up after years of war, of increased TSA security at airports and the confidence in a protective government came tumbling down as we realized that no government is omniscient and some things do slip through the cracks.
Old wounds were re-opened and a scared nation, desperate for answers, demanded once again to know who and why.
In times of crisis it is not uncommon to jump to conclusions or make baseless accusations grounded in fear. We want to know answers and the sooner we can figure out who did it, the sooner we can write them off and go back to our normal lives. There is a comfort that comes with knowing who the enemy is.
But in the days following the Boston attacks, I witnessed such a present and dangerous prejudice that, despite lying dormant in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, was all too ready to re-emerge in the face of tragedy.
Even before authorities started using the phrase Act of Terror to describe the bombings, the mass public, fueled by groupthink and encouraged by the accessibility of instant-- yet adulterated-- information, was quick to accuse.
This is about the time that the rumors started leaking through the press. Fox News and The New York Post reported a Saudi “person of interest” held under guard by the Boston Police Department at a hospital. This same individual-- himself a victim of the attack-- had been tackled by a bystander who, seeing a Middle Eastern man running away from the scene of the crime, could not escape a panicked post-9/11 fear paradigm and jumped to conclusions.
This fear paradigm was not limited to bystanders. The New York Post published a cover story shortly after the bombings featuring the image of a Moroccan-American high school student under the title “Bag Men.” This 17-year-old student, who had attended the marathon like every other Bostonian to celebrate and encourage the runners, soon found himself the victim of cyber-stalking. His name was circulated online and within moments the twitter and reddit communities were discussing his history, his place of employment and the fact that he liked The Hunger Games.
The most shameful story, in my opinion, is the report that two Middle Eastern men were removed from a flight after concerned passengers overheard them speaking Arabic. The flight-- a Boston to Chicago route-- was carrying a number of Boston marathon runners.
To be fair, our nation had just been attacked and, in the three days following the marathon bombings, law enforcement officers had still not produced a suspect name or profile. A vigilant nation was on guard against a terrorist that it knew was at large. Yet the rumors and suspects that a panicked nation provides in times of crisis are revealing: the fact that most of the accused were Middle Eastern is the manifestation of a dormant post-9/11 fear paradigm that has come to inform our experience of terrorism.
Even now, as one suspect has been killed and the other arrested, press outlets continue to discuss the Tsarnaev brothers’ Islamic roots as if religious radicalism is the only valid motive for violence.
Only time will tell the true motives of the Boston bombers; until then, we need to let the news develop and, for the sake of recognizing our common humanity, consciously work against the panic-driven narrative we so desperately cling to in times of crisis. Islam is the world’s most prevalent religion and terrorism is no more representative of our Muslim brothers and sisters as the Westboro Baptist Church is a reflection of Christianity.
Let the lesson from the Boston bombings, rather, be not the prejudice and marginalization of a post-9/11 fear paradigm, but instead the display of camaraderie and spirit manifested by a nation recovering from a devastating attack. Remember the heroes who continued running to the hospital after finishing the marathon to donate blood for the bombing victims. Remember our nation’s leaders who set aside partisanship to support the President in a time of crisis. Remember the crowd at a Boston Bruins game that overpowered Rene Rancourt and shook the stadium during the “National Anthem.”
These stories of empathy and solidarity display the true potential of humanity to veer towards compassion-- rather than hate-- in times of crisis. Let us cling to love rather than fear and lend a helping hand when our brothers and sisters need it the most.