With the initial days of the marathon bombing and manhunt behind us, I am, like many, proud of what I witnessed. The speed of the response and the grace under its pressure. The retreat many made from their initial impulse to play the immigrant/race card. The respect people showed officials when they asked for patience. The methodical gathering and sifting of intelligence that uncovered the suspects. The communal concern shared as folks worried about family, friends and beyond. In the midst of a long and scary week, it was a beautiful thing.
Many people have characterized Boston as “exceptional” and kinder than others because we ran to help those devastated by the bombs. Instead of being reassured by these messages, I find myself frustrated. How many times have I watched Israelis or Palestinians rush into cafés moments after a horrific act of terror? Or Haitians digging with bloody hands through rubble to find bodies post-earthquake as the announcer discussed the dangers of additional tremors?
When confronted with horrific acts of violence and devastation, Bostonians did what residents of neighborhoods, bodegas, villages, towns and cities throughout the world have had to do more often than should be required by any people. We leaned in. We slowed down to the moment. We closed ranks. This does not diminish the contribution of those who went headlong into the destruction: Who among us hasn’t wondered if she or he would have had what it took to intervene during those harrowing moments of chaos on Boylston Street? There is no blame for those who didn’t and only awe for the courage and clarity of those who did.
Early on, leaders cried that whoever targeted Boston is “messing with the wrong city.” Yes, there is a measure of poetry in those words, but they do not help us. We don’t need bravado pronouncements. Not only does this kind of language encourage swagger, it also acts to separate us from the full range of emotions that follow traumatic community events, which includes fear.
Random bombing is terrifying. It was right for us to be frightened, brave of us to not let the fear stop us from acting well in the aftermath. Papering over fear allows pain to fester by setting the stage for only one type of emotion, by denying the truth of normal and complex responses to trauma. The truth is Bostonians are not more fearless than others, not better at loving acts of bravery than anyone else. And I am grateful to realize this. Because to be exceptional in this case is to be alone. To believe that only exceptional cities or people can undertake these acts is to find oneself exceptionally alone.
To know that we are not unique allows us the opportunity to lead others as we extend this understanding to conflicts around the globe. Just as first responders and lay folk ran toward the bombs—toward their fellow human beings—rather than away, we need to do the same. If we can lean in with compassion and understanding to the rest of the world, then we truly have an opportunity to be exceptional.
Then our shouts would be not that Boston is the wrong city to mess with, but that no city is the right one.