I am a Pavlovian creature. I was fourteen on 9/11 and my worldview has been so clouded by the ghost-gray Lower Manhattan smoke of that day, a specter unto itself, that it’s hard for me to see anything like the chaos of yesterday’s Boston Marathon bombing and not circle back to where I sat the night of September 11, on the bed in my parents’ room, watching news reports and realizing that it was all much more horrible than I had realized. It was an endless loop of the moments of impact and the towers melting out of existence. People were falling from the sky. I sat there on my parents’ bed in Ohio, not knowing a soul in New York City or Washington, D.C., and cried because I’d never seen anything like it. The cinematic nature of the deaths was the most frightening part; stuff like this didn’t just happen in the movies anymore.
Yesterday’s bombing of the Boston Marathon felt like that—unreal, sickeningly cinematic—like something a Batman villain would plot only to be thwarted by our moody hero. It’s not supposed to happen like this in real life, but there it is again, playing out in high-def—the image of a man’s exposed and bloodied leg bone, foot gone and flesh flapping in the breeze as he is raced through a crowd in a wheelchair is one that will probably never leave me.
Nor will the sense of disbelief, which I imagine most others share to some extent, though, really, we should know better. The illusion of safety propped up by full-body scanners at airports and information-gathering drones is just that—an illusion. Whether the Boston bombings turn out to be the work of foreign or domestic terrorists or simply the work of a single individual matters little when it comes to the fact that it has socked us in the gut. The scar tissue has been gouged at. It is almost as if, in the 12 years since that mass attack on U.S. citizens, we have forgotten that, for all our precautions, we remain very much at the mercy of one another.
Marathons are not events with X-ray machines and airtight security. You cannot police every stretch of sidewalk, predict every plot, bomb-proof every trash can. So the worst part is again not knowing the where or the when. It is the return of heavy breathing, imminent and random doom on the back of our necks—“This stuff is more like Baghdad and Bombay than Boston,” a former Army medic on the scene told the AP yesterday. Because really, who would have picked Boston for an attack like this? It’s no Gotham, dark and sinister. It’s a New England town with duck statues and a grand old ballpark.
In a news universe where Twitter buzzes with millisecond scoops, the Golden Snitch of breaking stories, we are antsy for new information. It is a new day now, and with nothing fresh to analyze, the media, like a jogger at a red light, has been running in a state of frustrated kinetics for hours, a sea of whodunit speculation and scolding entreaties for patience and prudence in coverage. President Barack Obama got on television yesterday afternoon and spoke tersely, delivering his statement almost dispassionately—“We still do not know who did this or why. … Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups, will feel the full weight of justice.” Gone was the choking emotion of Newtown; in the absence of reasons, we seek—and in Obama, found—comfort in the cool reserve of leaders. Politicos on Twitter noted that he did not use the word “terrorism” but really, who needed official confirmation? Shrapnel tops semantics every time.
What is there to say when there are pictures of people in runner’s spandex cradling bloodied heads, making tourniquets from their race jerseys? It feels sacrilege not to bear witness, and truly, the only words that have mattered to me over the past few hours came from my sister who lives in Boston, who was watching the marathon, and whose phone kept going straight to voicemail in the 15 minutes after news of the attack spread. She was OK.
Perhaps it’s only if you live in a place where fear of this kind of random, public violence is truly ordinary, thuddingly humdrum, that you can even muster up words that are not self-interested or cable-repetitive. In the absence of meaningful information about the nature of the attacks and the attackers, all we are left to do is reflect on the jumbled nature of the carnage. Ciaran Carson is a Northern Irish poet who was born into and came of age during “The Troubles,” when IRA bombs hidden in trash cans were a fact of life. His poem, “Belfast Confetti,” about the aftermath of a street bombing, is all I can think of as we stumble through these hours of not-knowing:
It was raining exclamations marks
Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type.
And the explosion
itself—an asterisk on the map. This hyphenated line a burst of rapid fire.
I was trying to complete a sentence in my head but it kept stuttering.
All the alleyways and side streets blocked with stops and colons ...
April 15 won’t just be Tax Day anymore, and Patriot’s Day won’t be just for running and binge-drinking. It’s another day we’re going to have to remember for all the wrong reasons.