How Explosions Beget Explosions


I started writing this the day of the bombing, but it took several days and the subsequent events to make sense of it all and sort my thoughts out. Someone I care about very deeply was near the attacks, and I spent most of Monday afternoon in a state of anxiety and fear. Though I knew she wasn’t hurt in the explosions, no one knew if there were more bombs around the city or more attacks to come. As far as I was aware, it was chaos. The police had ordered evacuations and the subway had been shut down. Cell phone service had reportedly been cut off and people ordered to not gather in groups. She left her office in the evacuated zone at 4pm and wasn’t home until after 8.

Only a while later did I even begin to calm down. I didn’t feel remotely okay until Wednesday. The whole time I felt confused and anxious. But more than anything I felt powerless; a loved one’s safety was threatened and there was nothing I could do about it. I was angry.

One of the first thoughts I had after hearing about the explosions was that I hoped it wasn’t a Muslim who did it. (This wasn’t an uncommon sentiment.) My next thought was: actually, I don’t really give a shit. I didn’t care who they were. It didn’t matter to me why they did this. Their religion, race, ethnicity, cultural identity, and ideology—or lack thereof—was entirely irrelevant. I could not care. I hated the people who did this. Hated them for putting someone I cared about in danger. Hated them for making me feel so powerless. I wanted to hurt them.

This reaction surprised me. Yet it seemed, both then and now, perfectly human. I don’t mean to overstate things; no one I know was killed or injured. (I did share mutual friends with Sean Collier, the MIT police officer killed on Thursday, and my sincerest condolences go out to them and his friends and family.) But though I’d obviously watched terror attacks before, this was the first that personally affected me, that felt personal. And to be angry at those threatening a loved one was understandable.

I’ve backed off from this in the last couple days. I am no longer angry, and I no longer want to hurt them. I don’t want revenge. I’m glad Dzhokahr Tsarnaev was arrested and not killed, and I sincerely hope he is tried in civilian court and is afforded the full Constitutional protections of the American justice system.

But I can’t help but wonder how I’d feel if—God forbid—someone I knew had been killed or injured. Would I get over it in a few days? Would I feel so magnanimous? Or would I want revenge, insist on it? Would I consider it an injustice if there were none?

At root of my feeling of powerlessness was the seeming randomness of the attacks. I feared for my loved one’s safety, yet I didn’t where or if there were more bombs, so I couldn’t do anything about them. This, of course, is the point of terrorism. The inherent impersonality of it gives it its ability to terrify. The attacks are aimed at no one, therefore they are potentially aimed at anyone.

But this is also the nature of explosions. They are tools of impersonal violence, random in their impact; who they kill, who they maim, who they spare is unpredictable. And unavoidably they kill innocent people.

While attempting to process the events of this past week, I thought about the places in the world where explosions are far more common. I thought about all the people who must have felt the same way I did when their loved ones’ safety was threatened (or worse). How powerless and angry they must have felt. How much they wanted to hurt those responsible.

We’re all human beings, after all. We want the people we care about to be safe. And it is normal to want retribution for the explosions that violate their safety. And while we do have the capacity for forgiveness, often that means more explosions.

For Americans, that is the job of our government and our military; two exploding planes in New York meant thousands of explosions in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Yemen. For others, however, they have no government to represent them, no military to speak of, and they choose to take matters into their own hands; exploding cars in Shiite neighborhoods mean exploding cars in Sunni neighborhoods. Explosions in houses in Afghanistan mean explosions in military barracks in Afghanistan. It is not inevitable, but it should not be surprising, either.

And for a handful of angry young men, explosions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya, Yemen, Bosnia, Sudan and Somalia mean explosions on trains in London and Madrid, or near-explosions in Times Square and on two transatlantic flights.

Now there are explosions in Boston, carried out by more angry young men. We don’t yet know what led to these explosions (and I won’t speculate), but we can hope that they do not mean more explosions in Chechnya, or in Dagestan, or in American mosques. They don’t have to. We saw some of the best of human nature right after the attacks, now that we have an idea of who is responsible, we don’t have to give in to the worst.

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