The first thing I thought of was not 9/11 but the Munich massacre. That was after I saw the images in the Internet and CNN of the Boston explosions.
At first blush, that doesn’t seem comparable in scale and ferocity. The Munich massacre for those who hadn’t been born yet then, or have not heard of it, was the bloodbath carried out by a group of Palestinian terrorists called Black September on Israeli athletes in the 1972 Olympics. The gunmen raided the Israeli team’s quarters, took 11 of them hostage and eventually killed them. It shocked a world that had already seen some pretty shocking sights, not least courtesy of the Vietnam War.
What did so—and which is why the Boston explosions reminded me of it—was that it happened during a sports event. Specifically the Olympics, an event that was meant to, and had, brought out the best in human beings. The seeming incompatibility of baseness and viciousness with a world that was pure and lofty, the seeming incongruity of a lapse into savageness and barbarity amid the striving toward transcendence and perfection, drove home the horror of it.
I remembered it after a young man who had joined the marathon and missed becoming a victim by seconds wondered how something like that could happen. It was beyond comprehension, he said in a daze. The Boston marathon was as best a show of camaraderie and solidarity, of goodness and kindness, of being the best that one could be, as you could get. It had drawn in people from all walks of life. It had drawn in people from all nationalities. Who could possibly wish it ill? Who could possibly want to do something like that?
As he said that, CNN showed footage of the runners dashing toward the finish line and an orange light suddenly flashing and smoke billowing from the bushes. One runner staggered and fell, the news reporter not knowing whether he had been hit by shrapnel or had just buckled under from the force of the explosions—there were two of them, one coming on top of the other. As I write this, some 150 people have been rushed to the hospitals, some of them in critical condition. Three have died, one of them an eight-year-old boy.
The bombs were probably lying on the ground, said the authorities, the victims’ injuries being largely in the limbs. Many would not be able to walk again, let alone run.
The second thing I thought of was still not 9/11, it was the Oklahoma bombing.
Who would do such a thing? That was the question Americans asked in April 1995 when a huge blast turned to rubble the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City and damaged 324 buildings within a 16-block radius. It killed 168 people. It was the most destructive act of terrorism before 9/11. Americans asked who would do such a thing, and answered that it must have been Arab terrorists.
As it turned out, it was an American one. Timothy McVeigh, a disgruntled and unhinged veteran of the Gulf War, had detonated explosives from a truck he had parked in front of the building with that catastrophic result. It was an enterprising reporter from InterPress, a Third World wire agency, that led to McVeigh being identified, tracked down and taken in custody. But not before life became a little miserable for foreigners in the United States, especially those of Arabic descent, especially those who wore flowing robes and spoke in strange accents.
Armed with hindsight, Americans have become a lot more circumspect or cautious about pointing fingers. Barack Obama spoke tersely, saying only that the perpetrators would be ferreted out and bear the full weight of justice. Congress has called the bombing a terrorist act and has been vociferous in condemning it but has refrained from saying whether it was foreign or homegrown in origin. Fox though was not loath to look outside for its source. An American airport is not the best place to be at right now.
We’ll have to wait for the next few days or weeks to know at all. But you have to wonder what it will do to the American psyche at this point if the perpetrator turns out to be a local one. As I write this, investigators have just noted that the bombs were “not sophisticated,” though the fact that two other unexploded bombs were found suggests some planning. Can it be so hard to imagine that this is a continuation, albeit a far more murderous kind, of the explosion of violence and mayhem that has been gripping the United States of late? And with the National Rifle Association leading a belligerent campaign to shoot down—pun fully intended—government’s gun control bills? A bomb is just an extension of a handgun, it’s just a weapon of more mass, or massive, destruction. But the motivation, or lack of it, could be the same.
The third thing I thought of was 9/11.
And how more than a decade after the atrocity, the United States continues to feel its pain as freshly as it did 12 years ago and to bid the world share its grief. Which is as it should be: The lives of those who perished ought to be remembered, the horror of the deed ought to be remembered. The death of one person diminishes us all. The death of any person, black or white, man or woman, rich or poor, diminishes us all.
But which makes you wonder why when the same thing, or far, far worse, happens elsewhere, those who perish are not just not remembered, they are not even seen, there are no cameras rolling to record the scale of destruction, there are no pens scribbling to try to capture the depth of the despair. Who are there to share their anguish? Who are there to help carry their grief? “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” as Shylock asks. “If you poison us, do we not die?”
Seeing the horror of one but not another, hearing the cries of one but not another, seething with rage at the one but not at the other:
That is terror too.
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