On Monday two “pressure cooker bombs” exploded in Boston killing three and injuring more than 180. Eighteen years ago Friday a 5000 pound bomb exploded in Oklahoma City killing 168 people and injuring 450.
On the same day as the Boston attack at least 50 people were killed and more than 200 wounded in a series of early-morning car bomb explosions in cities across Iraq.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights yesterday (April 17) at least 44 non-combatants and over 200 combatants were killed in that civil war. Among yesterday’s dead were four children, bringing the total number of children killed since March 2011 to over 5000.
We have been taught to view such attacks as self-conscious tactical choices endemic to certain kinds of violent political (or religious) conflict. The legal definition of terrorism usually involves the application of indiscriminate violence with the intention to influence political decisions. In this conceptualization we demonstrate some of the same preoccupation with self that characterizes the “terrorist”. It must be about us. Not always or even often.
April 15 is also the anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth claimed political purposes. It was too late in the war to have any realistic hope of reversing confederate fortunes. But it was a ripe moment for a megalomaniacal if mediocre actor to make a very real claim on immortality as a latter day self-proclaimed Brutus.
On April 16, 2007 Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks. This year’s Boston Marathon was dedicated to the memory of those killed by Adam Lanza in Newtown, Connecticut. Saturday is the anniversary of Columbine.
Such attacks are not about the victims or those of us who survive or our political choices. Whoever constructed, delivered, and detonated the Boston bomb had no specific intention to kill Martin Richard, age 8, or injure Martin’s seven-year-old sister and mother. If a political manifesto is ever found or offered, give particular attention to how — if — the attack is explained as a change-agent. Is it even minimally persuasive? Usually not.
The justifications typically range between self-aggrandizing and deeply delusional. Timothy McVeigh characterized his bombing of the Murrah Building as, “borrowing a page from U.S. foreign policy, I decided to send a message to a government that was becoming increasingly hostile.”
These sort of attacks are an effort by the attacker to express power: to most-of-all convince himself (almost always a him) that he has power. Similar attacks by so-called “terrorist” groups also seek to reinforce and extend self-assertions of power. Victims are much more tools — totems of inadequacy overcome — than targets, in any traditional understanding of target.
Too often we inadvertently feed these delusions in how we magnify the risk and in this way inflate the ego of the attacker and those similarly predisposed. Most of these pathetic men (and a few women) are thrilled to be seen as a somehow existential threat to the most powerful nation on the planet.
On Tuesday President Obama spoke of how Boston is responding to the attack, he said, “if you want to know who we are, what America is, how we respond to evil — that’s it. Selflessly. Compassionately. Unafraid.”
Thirty-or-so years ago President Reagan unexpectedly involved me in a quick but intense discussion of the Holocaust. I had a difficult time keeping up with where the President was going and what he was trying to work out. But I very clearly remember one line: “Evil is powerless if the good are unafraid.”
We should do a great deal to prevent attacks. We are making an extraordinary effort to identify and hold accountable whoever is behind the Boston attack. But in this important work we will sometimes fail. Where we can be more certain of success is in engaging with courage and compassion those who have been abused as tools of another’s self-assertion.
Evil is persistent. Evil will recur. Fear feeds evil. Courage starves evil. Love confuses, confounds, and contains evil.