Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Well I love that dirty water - Thoughts on the Boston Marathon

In some of my rare moments of introspection, I think of the concept of "Home," and whether I am someone who has one Home, many Homes, or no Home.  Usually, these thought exercises end with me deciding that I am lucky enough to have several places that I can call home.  New England is one of those places.

As a foreigner living in New England, the first thing you learn is that New England is a really parochial place. The second thing you learn is that most of the people there don't know what parochial means, but that's beside the point.  The takeaway here is that New England has a lot of its own traditions and its own culture.  Patriots Day, and The Boston Marathon are big parts of that.

Most of New England doesn't actually get Patriots Day as a holiday.  Massachusetts observes it, as does Maine, but living in New Hampshire, it was not a holiday for me or my colleagues.  But every year, a cadre of my coworkers would schedule Patriots Day off, and head down to Boston to hang out, enjoy the emergent spring weather, drink crappy American beers, and give out water and Gatorade to a bunch of complete strangers.

I have to confess: I didn't really get it at first.  In fact, it took me years to figure it out.  But in time, I found the answer: It's a chip.  Boston as a city, and New England as a region, have always carried a big chip on their shoulder.  Home of Great Patriots, Cradle of The Revolution, Athens of The New World, but overtaken and overshadowed by New York, and then Chicago, and then Los Angeles... Boston is a city whose primacy, in nearly every way, belongs to the past.

But on Patriots Day, Boston gets to be The Hub once again.  Once every year, on a holiday given to almost noone else in the country, Boston gets to steal the spotlight.  The Marathon.  A Red Sox game.  A Bruins or Celtics game.  It's a dawn to dusk tailgate, early in the New England spring, replete with alcohol, chicken parms, and contests of physical prowess...  So close to a pagan fertility festival, the only thing missing is a maypole.  It is, quite literally, the happiest day on the Boston calendar.

Which is what makes today's events all the more galling.  The contrast between what everyone who has ever lived in New England expects from this day and what actually transpired is a gulf of such immensity that the human brain can barely process it.

It just. Makes. No. Sense.

On 9/11, I had only lived in the US for a little over a year.  I didn't know anybody in New York.  I hadn't even been to New York.  I felt the same overwhelming sadness as everyone else did, but I was spared the personal connection that impacted so many of those around me.  

Today was different.  Today was personal.  Today saw me going through a list of everyone I know who lives in New England, and trying to assess the odds of their being in the vicinity of the explosions.  Fortunately, most of those I know in New England either don't get the day off, or are too out of shape to even want to watch a marathon.  And those who were in the vicinity had thankfully left the area before the blasts.  But that in no way detracts from the shock and anger that I've been carrying around since 3pm today.  I saw links to photos pop up on twitter soon after the blasts.  Then that six-second Vine clip that we've all now seen replayed a thousand times.  Then the escalating casualty numbers, which, if they remain where they are (3 deaths at last count), will somehow seem mercifully low, despite being at least 3 too high.  It all adds up to an affront to all civil societies.  

A marathon is the softest of targets.  It is impossible to secure a 26.2 mile course through public streets.  Impossible to screen 500000 spectators.  Impossible to cover every possible escape route.  It is, in many ways, an exercise in trust.  Trust that evaporated today in two plumes of smoke, a hundred yards apart.

Betrayal of trust is hard on the psyche.  The trauma of betrayal often involves a lot of anger, a lot of confusion, and a lot of questioning of one's reality frame.  In the wake of that kind of trauma, many will turn to prayer.  Others will console themselves with something a little more secular, like the Mr. Rogers quote that makes the rounds whenever this kind of thing occurs.  Those looking for something more tangible will find solace in the arms of a loved one.

But don't forget about the anger.  There is nothing wrong with being angry, and a lot to be angry about.  I will readily acknowledge that if I could get my hands on whomever did this, I would make Abu Ghraib look like a tea party.  That anger is natural.  Feeling it is a reminder of our humanity.

And don't forget about the confusion.  There is nothing wrong with being confused, and a lot to be confused about.  I stopped counting the number of times I've wondered why someone would do this.  Asking 'why' and not being able to answer, explains why you aren't the kind of person who would ever do this. That confusion in natural.  Feeling it is a reminder of our humanity.

But most of all, don't forget about the questioning.  There is nothing wrong with asking difficult questions, and there is a lot to ask about.  As the days go by, proposals will no doubt be made in an effort to make our world safer.  These proposals will all be well-intentioned.  Some of them (ideally most of them), will even be effective.  But they all need to be questioned.  And we all need to ask ourselves what kind of society we want to live in.  The American mythos makes prodigious use of words like liberty, and freedom, but it is an uncomfortable truth that America is a less free place today than it was on September 10th, 2001.  Are we ok with that?  So far, it seems that we are.  But how far should the pursuit of security go?  How do we decide what is a civil liberty and what is a national interest?  Where is the boundary between 'I want to feel safe?' and 'I don't want to feel scared?'

Asking these questions is natural.  Making sure they get answered preserves our humanity.

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