The most common refrain you hear in the wake of tragedies like Monday's Boston Marathon bombing is also the one that sounds most like a redneck bumper sticker: "Don't be scared." In an interview with the Washington Post yesterday, author and security expert Bruce Schneier said the appropriate response to terrorist violence is to face it fearlessly: "If you are scared, they win. If you refuse to be scared, they lose, no matter how much carnage they commit."
President Obama echoed the cliche on Tuesday, in his second speech on the Boston attacks, saying Americans "refuse to be terrorized," and that we we will respond to this latest blow "selflessly, compassionately, not afraid."
Unfortunately, as is the case with most of our political platitudes, fewer Americans than one would like are living up to the ideals touted in our impassioned speeches. Heroes are never in short supply in a catastrophe, of course, but neither are cowards and egoists and creeps who have decided to wallow in melodrama and fear, restless miserablists whose only mile-markers in life are the tragedies that have befallen them. Enough.
It's been sad to see, for instance, how quickly the bombs in Boston have led us into the same modes of thought and reactionary patterns that darkened America when the smoke cleared from 9/11. Literally moments after two explosions sent Copley Square into panic and chaos, when only the bomber himself had any idea what was happening, a spectator still thought it his duty to take down an Arab man he'd in that instant deemed suspicious. At airports, where our post-9/11 fears are at their most palpable, people were similarly anxious and lizard-brained. Part of New York LaGuardia was evacuated for an hour Tuesday morning when travelers got spooked by some loose wires sticking out of a light fixture. Then, at Boston's Logan Airport, two people speaking Arabic were asked to disembark a plane while authorities inspected a piece of luggage they thought was shady. Once again, the investigation would reveal that neither Arabic speaker had done anything wrong.
Our media, the people who are supposed to analyze and explain the contours of disaster when it strikes, has been as hamfisted as anyone who lunges at the first Arab he sees in time of crisis. While some outlets like the New York Post were reporting total falsehoods, Alex Jones used his pedestal to pawn off more of his emotionally unstable ramblings as political thought. Even the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof took the marathon bombing for his cue to rail against the GOP. All of this was perfectly nauseating, but the worst of the lot was the treacly fearmongering disguised as eulogy.
In a National Journal piece bearing the leading headline, "Why Boston Bombings Might Be Scarier Than 9/11," Ron Fournier attempted to make the case that the real collateral devastation of Monday's bombing is Americans not feeling safe in their private lives anymore. "It's one thing—a dastardly, evil thing—to strike symbols of economic and military power," wrote Fournier. "It's another to hit the heart of America. Death at the finish line in Boston makes every place (and everybody) less secure." At the end of the piece, after attempting to weave together several disjointed ideas, Fournier throws in this grim and strained non sequitur: "Today, officials identified the 8-year-old boy killed at the finish line. His name was Martin Richard. He left a world unworthy of him."
Shortly after Fournier's piece went live, columnist Anne Taylor Fleming followed with her own sky-is-falling take at Reuters, with prose so purple Prince might write a song about it. This article was called, "With the Boston bombing, fear returns," and it, too, namedrops 9/11 to suggest that the world is terrifying, and we should be terrified.
We cannot keep our children safe. Yes, we can tell them they are good people and bad people, etc. etc. But we cannot keep them safe. That is the new reality. An eight-year-old boy died on the streets of Boston where he had gone to hug his father at the end of the race. This is your country now.
Presumably Fleming meant we can tell our children "THERE are good people and bad people," because surely we mustn't tell our children they are bad people. But that sort of typo is to be expected in a time when so many people are rushing to vomit out their nervousness and pass it off as analysis. I'm not sure if this world was unworthy of Martin Richard, but I am quite certain most of the half-baked requiems casually invoking him over and over in order to construct a neo-September 11 narrative are unworthy of his memory.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that some people have been behaving this week as if they wanted America to suffer another major terrorist attack, but the speed with which some have come forward to suggest that this is our new 9/11 has been ugly and disconcerting. Last year dozens of people—many of them children—were slaughtered wholesale in a movie theater and elementary school, and yet there was no Ron Fournier piece calling Newtown scarier than 9/11 because we could no longer feel safe going about our daily lives. Fournier's new article also fails to adequately explain his main thesis that the Boston bombing was any more personal than 9/11, when people doing something as quotidian as flying on planes were smashed into people doing something as quotidian as going to work.
Worth noting, and not to denigrate the victims of the marathon bombing, nor the losses of their families, is that despite the pandemonium around the Boston attacks, ultimately—and blessedly—only three people died. According to one estimate, at least four times more American children die each year when their parents pray to god for their illnesses to go away rather than getting them proper medical attention. And yet we don't say that every year these nutty Christian sects are allowed to operate within America is "scarier than 9/11." The Oklahoma City Bombing killed nearly 200 and injured almost 700, but nobody is staring skeptically at white men across the aisles of planes, the pale visage of Timothy McVeigh forever haunting their inner-thoughts with memories of the evils your average white guy can commit.
Knowing America, it will—and should—forever acknowledge and remember the three people killed and dozens injured in Monday's godawful bombing. But when will we learn to be wary of the conditioned responses we've fallen into the way we're wary of suspicious packages? When will we stop the fear-baiting and admit that incidents of terrorism are exceedingly rare? When will we stop tackling Arab people at the first sign of trouble, ignoring how alienating that might be to an Arab who previously had no problem with Americans? When will we stop arbitrarily holding violent incidents up to 9/11 to see how the two compare in macabre and stupid thought experiments? When will we stop using dead children to convince everyone they should be scared, because the world is scary? We can talk about fearlessness in the face of violence all we'd like, but as long as we continue doing the above without question, it's obvious to everyone, terrorists included, that we are scared as all hell.
Refusing to be frightened, as Bruce Schneier suggests we do, is easy when all that means to you is writing "Pray for Boston" on your Facebook wall or putting up a plaque in honor of the victims. It becomes a lot harder when you see it as asking you to continue walking your kid through public squares crowded with trash cans and other people's backpacks, teaching them to see a world in which there's not another 9/11 around every corner.
[Image via Getty]