I first learned of the Boston Marathon bombings while eating at Frank Dining Hall, when someone at a nearby table answered her phone and let out a gasp of shock. Until I returned to my room 10 minutes later, my initial understanding of the situation depended entirely on what she said next: “There was a terrorist attack in Boston?!”
Perhaps I’m callous, or jaded, but my thoughts did not immediately jump to those who may have lost their lives or received grievous injuries. As I write this, I obviously feel great sadness for the three dead and countless wounded—but only because I can identify them as the primary victims of this tragedy. The seven vague words that I heard in Frank did not grant me that privilege. Instead, they left me in a boundless imaginative state, where I momentarily gave in to a stream of loose and unrealistic associations.
The first thing to enter my mind was the past. I thought, unsurprisingly, of falling towers and crumbling federal buildings. I had no way of knowing whether an event of massive scope had occurred in Boston, but I thought of those weeks and months almost 12 years ago when everything seemed to be in doubt. From there, I remembered more than a decade of vertiginous violence, over 10 dizzying years of imperialistic jingoism that disenchanted a generation. I thought of invisible weapons of mass destruction. I thought of wiretapped phones. I thought of 116,000 dead Iraqi civilians. I heard the whine of a drone crashing into Pakistan, the pop of gunfire in Fallujah, and the monotonous urgings to stay the course.
September 11, of course, is the flashbulb memory that words like “terrorist attack” will forever evoke. On that day, I was safe in San Diego, skipping third grade and comprehending a mere fraction of the images broadcast from 3,000 miles away. Nevertheless, I knew something had changed; I imagine that many of us—despite our elementary school naïveté, our embryonic comprehension of the culture that had produced us—could still feel some sort of irreversible shift. As I sat in Frank, that sense of tremulous foreboding returned to me, if only faintly and for a few brief minutes.
Four days later, authorities identified the likely culprits as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, two brothers of Chechen origin who had resided in the U.S. for years and happened to practice Islam. After Boston police killed the former and captured the latter, the country immediately attempted to create a narrative around the suspects’ background. Such a task proved difficult, since few Americans are even aware of Chechnya’s existence, but xenophobia prevailed.
Upon learning the brothers’ religious affiliation, Americans responded as though any confusion surrounding the bombings had evaporated instantly. Islam, the supposed ideological antithesis to democracy, had attacked our homeland, and we could react to the bombings as we would to an act of international terrorism. The realities of the event—that Dzhokhar is a naturalized American citizen, and that efforts to link the brothers to al-Qaeda have been fruitless—have not interfered with the need to conceptualize a foreign invader. On Tuesday, for instance, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) urged the president to treat Dzhokhar as an enemy combatant; unverified “ties to radical Islamic thought” and an upbringing in equally “radical” Chechnya are, apparently, enough to negate Tsarnaev’s constitutional right to due process.
I am thus coming to fear that my initial remembrance of the past was, in some sense, a premonition. The Boston Marathon bombings were obviously not the sort of decade-defining moment that 9/11 represented, but they threaten to reinforce the prejudices that have misguided the country for much of our lives. Although the prospect of invading Chechnya and launching an inevitably doomed campaign is, at this point, a remote one, the specter of Bush-era zealotry undeniably has reemerged in the last week and a half. The bombings have subjected the nation to a sudden amnesia; anger threatens to blind us to our past mistakes.
My intention, of course, is not to condemn the grief that we are more than justified in expressing. I simply want us to realize that there are different types of grief: the sort of grief that unites, and also the grief that divides. In 2001, we succumbed to the latter; despite the palliative words of politicians, the aftermath of 9/11 did not strengthen the country. The following years left us defensive, paranoid, and hostile, and only now, after more than a decade, are we even beginning to address our failures.
We are fortunate that, as horrific as they were, the Boston attacks were not on the scale of 9/11. At the same time, we must acknowledge the reality that they evince plainly: After years of feckless retaliation, we have eliminated neither terrorism nor the impulse for violence that contributes to much more dangerous societal ills—and we have learned surprisingly little as a result. I do not deny that any incident of terror is tragic; none of us, however, can deny that a loss of hindsight would be even more so.