I live in Watertown, Massachusetts. That’s where the finale played out in our recent unpleasantness here in the Boston area. My house is just across the Charles River from where the big shootout occurred. About a mile and a half, as the Google flies. It happened a little less than a mile from where my daughter goes to school. Bang! Bang! Bang!
Sounds like I was pretty close to all the excitement, eh? In fact I was more than 3000 miles away. We were on a family vacation to Ireland, so my first hint that something was wrong was when I happened to walk past a TV in the fitness center at the Camden Court Hotel in Dublin. Amid sounds of confusion, the text crawled across the bottom of the screen: Boston Marathon. I hurried back to the room. One of the things I quickly realized was that I had no desire to turn on the TV. At that moment, all I wanted was web access. There’s so little actual information in TV news, particularly when you’re arriving late to a breaking story. Mostly it serves up the same disturbing images over and over. I knew from experience that Twitter, boston.com, and Wikipedia would be my best sources. And so they proved to be.
My wife and I spent the next hour glued to our iPhones, calling out fresh details to each other, fielding emails and texts from concerned family and friends. Then we tried to settle back into vacation mode. It was, of course, strange to fly across the Atlantic only to find Boston at the top of the international news. We started to avoid the “Where are you from?” question because it was such a bummer as a conversation starter. “Sad, so sad. Shame, such a shame.” But even stranger news lay ahead.
Three days later, in the Earl’s Court House hotel in Killarney, I learned that my little home town was the scene of a showdown with the police. Because of the time zone difference, on Friday morning I was reading in real time the first Twitter reports of the ripping blast on Laurel Street, the pop-pop-popping gunfire, the acrid hanging smoke, the vanished bomber. An unhinged bomb-laden terrorist was last seen about a mile from my house, and … and oh look! It’s time for us to go on a carefree ride in a horse-drawn jaunting car by Muckross Lake.
Unbalanced people with deadly weapons and murderous intent are bad. We don’t like those people at all. But here is a very important question: those people, do they look like me? I sure hope they don’t, because that makes this whole hating process so much easier.
Much has been written about this lately, but the crimes of New Town and the crimes of Boston are so close in time and place that it’s hard to avoid. When faced with domestic terror we are able to say, “things like this will happen from time to time.” Shrug. What can you do about crazy people? No countermeasure is likely to make a difference. But terror at the hands of the Other is an abomination for which no countermeasure is too great.
Can’t we find some middle path between these responses? “Keep calm and carry on” is surely the best advice. Things like this will happen from time to time, and we can’t let the immune response be more damaging than the infection.
Being abroad during this storm gave me two gifts. The first was being safe with my family far away from a dangerous event. The second was the experience of being the Other as it unfolded. When you travel abroad, you are apart, the Other. How shall the Other be treated? Countries defined by ethnicity and cultural uniformity are charming, much more charming than the United States. All noise and chaos, America lacks this aligning charm. But this chaos is our saving grace. Shaped by ideas rather than ethnicity, we can embrace the Other as our own. If we are frightened into forsaking the Other, we will have the worst of both worlds. No embrace. No charm. Only a harvest of bitterness.