Is April the Cruelest Month?
“All in all, it’s been a tough week,” President Barack Obama said in the wake of the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, which ended the week-long trial by terror of a proud, historic American city stunned into shock by the bombing attacks Monday at the finish line of its beloved annual Boston Marathon on Patriot Day. “But we’ve seen the character of America once more.”
Throughout the week, there was enough hard and difficult news to make many hearts buckle— flood waters in Mississippi, in the Midwest, in Missouri; the dramatic defeat of the background check amendment in the United States Senate, making the defeat of any sort of gun control legislation inevitable; poisoned letters sent to a U.S. Senator and the President by an Elvis impersonator; a huge fire and explosion that demolished the town of West, Texas and killed 19 people at last count, including firefighters.
In the end though, it was Boston where all attention flew, where our emotions were engaged most fully, where drama of the kind that had a 9/11 feeling to it unfolded for days from the moment of the seen-over-and-over-again explosion that knocked down a runner near the finishing line until the killing of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the capture of his 19-year-old brother Dzhokhar, two Chechen brothers and Boston residents who had perpetrated an act of terror by placing back- packs filled with deadly bombs in two different locations near the finish line of the marathon.
Three people were killed—an 8-year-old boy, a 23-year-old student from China and a 29-year- old restaurant manager. Their names were Martin Richard, Lu Lingzi and Krystle Campbell. Some 170 more were injured and hospitalized, some with injuries that required amputation.
The scenes at the scene—ambulances roaring in, people rushing to help, bodies flailing on the sidewalk, police with guns drawn, along with the accompanying sounds of sirens, screams, the yelling of officers, victims, bystanders, the energy that saw people running from and to the scene in confusion, seemed as familiar as any old dream of disaster, a particular disaster from a perfect fall morning nearly 12 years ago, when smoke, disaster and unimaginable horror and tragedy ruled New York.
Boston’s travail, the ruination of its proud day of celebration and of Patriot Day and all the frustration, confusion—one network anchor called it the fog of war—was in the end not 9/11 but 4/15 in the year 2013. It was something different, particular to the times, the place, and the people, including the perpetrators of the bombings, which hinted again at the unfamiliar culture of the others. Who and why could do such a thing, we all asked, and when we found out who, we still didn’t really know why, although it clearly carried a whiff of the cultural animus against America that permeated the horrors of 9/11.
It was not the same story—that needs to be clear. We caught the whiff of the terrorist bomb in the air, with random victims victimized again. But we live in age now that includes the wrath of Mother Nature and its Sandy, its earthquakes in Japan and Haiti, Katrina and New Orleans. We live now in the age of mass murderers and shooters, full of rage visited upon their own families, themselves, co-workers and bosses, but also most hurtfully to all, children and people in the wrong place at the wrong time. We live now in the age of terrorists, angry Jihadists, as well as homegrown killers.
The end result of such events is random death and destruction and loss, which can never be made up for with abstractions like blame, revenge, justice, rationale, ideology or psychosis. They are essentially senseless events which are utterly unfair in how and whom they victimize. The rest of us become spectators, left with a hunger to know what happened, to know and commemorate the lives of the victims, identify the causes and casuists, the time of day, the temperature of the air that hour, the life stories of both the perpetrators and their victims.
It is always different, with an overlay of the memories of previous tragedies. Boston was about innocent victims, about a historic city rocked to its knees, its people forced into a kind of lockdown in their homes while a huge law enforcement and military presence sought the two brothers. It was also about the city itself which other Americans hold dear for the origin history of our revolution which it contains on cobbled sidewalks, in stores and museums, for its Irish and ethnic overlays, its rough politics, its New England patina of intellectualism, poetry and education, its sports teams and rivalries.
It’s also about the media itself which went into its almost reflexive full court press, which is to rush to any and all bits of information and often report it unchecked, anchors, bloggers, freelancers, television and print reporters and gawkers mixing freely. In that sense, the usual happened—mistakes were made, the most egregious and unapologetic being that of the New York Post who ran a picture of a man on the front page of its tabloid, which suggested he was one of the men being sought. Hints of conspiracy flew through the air like bugs, including false reports of arrests.
When the bombers were finally identified— by way of an unprecedented appeal to digital and internet watchers to help find them in thousands of photos taken that day—it became a different story, a way of trying to figure out the torturous path that led these two brothers who had been in Boston since their early youth to the moment when they made these bombs and picked up and set down those backpacks. It was a complicated story, fueled by the anger of one of their uncles living in Maryland, who was furious at what he saws as a betrayal, by tentacles reaching to Russia and the Muslim republics, and the bloody battles of Chechnya. It ended with a cold-blooded killing of a Cambridge police officer, a running gun battle late Thursday night in which the older brother was killed and finally after a nerve-wracking day of lockdown and speculation, in the discovery of a bloody, wounded but still dangerous younger brother who had hidden for the better part of a day under the tarp of a boat in a yard in a house just outside of an established perimeter.
Politicians tried to butt in—it is in the nature of the beast—on what to do with the captured bomber and how to treat him. Questions remain, stories abounded. Boston—the citizens thereof— celebrated the end of their ordeal in ballparks and stadiums in the streets in cheers for police, fire- men and EMS personnel. They became “Boston Strong”, a slogan that was well on its way to copyright. No one, of course, cheered in West, Texas, where firemen rushed bravely to their deaths, and not a single resident was left unaffected. But it was not Boston, no full court press here, perhaps understandably. Americans were left in grief, here, too, and reporters on television remembered to put the comma between West and Texas on the air, that pause, that identified the place. Soon, they too will be holding commemorations for those lost, and the unimaginable loss of life, and place.
West was not Boston and Boston, in the end was not 9/11 these years ago. It was the memory of 9/11 which touched Boston, if not West, a hint of smoke and fire and terror in the air. But it was April, a spring week, and the mornings came regularly after the Friday night.★