I am a Bostonian. I was born here, have lived here my whole life excepting a few excursions, and with those interludes behind me, I intend to stay here. Boston is my home.
On Monday, April 15, Patriots Day here in Massachusetts, when the Boston Marathon was in full swing I was at home just outside Boston proper, way over my head in the ongoing process of learning how to be a father to a 12-day-old baby girl. While she slept for a short spell on my chest I pulled out my phone to catch up on Twitter. That was at around 3:30 p.m.
“Something happened at the marathon,” I told my wife without looking up from my phone.
“Should we turn the TV on,” she asked?
You know the rest. It was an awful week in Boston.
Maybe it was the sleep deprivation, or just the overwhelming unbelievableness of it all, but I just couldn’t get myself to write. Even when offered the opportunity to contribute a short reflection, I found I couldn’t. Too soon, I kept saying.
But others did write, and many journalists, essayists, and bloggers composed beautiful and important, if often pained, responses to the tragedy. And, in the short span between the bombings on Monday, the gunfight on Thursday night, and the manhunt on Friday, the general theme of much of that writing was praise for the goodness of people, the strength of Bostonians, and the fearlessness of first responders in the face of devastation. Boston Strong. How many writers employed the phrase, “ran toward the explosions” in their praise of humanity?
That’s not what I was feeling though. From the moment I first turned the television on, through when I disgustedly turned it off, while reading tweets and Facebook status updates and listening to strangers talking around the city, I couldn’t get comfortable with the heroism narrative. The Boston Marathon bombings didn’t speak to me of the goodness of humanity in the face of evil, but the corruption of our species and the ways we try our best to control it.
Certainly there were heroes, bright spots amidst the overwhelming dark, but I can’t help but think that they were the exceptions, not the rule. We talk about those who “ran toward the explosions” precisely because what they did was surprising and out of the ordinary. It was selfless.
Selflessness, though, is not the norm. Rather, it is the bombers, driven by motivations we may never fully understand, who were acting most like humans typically do — selfish, deranged, evil.
Stephen King, in his essay, “Why We Crave Horror Movies,” tell us that we like to subject ourselves to disturbing and violent imagery as a way of keeping the disturbance and violence in ourselves in check. He likens exposing ourselves to these things as “lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath.” This we must do because it keeps the alligators from getting out.
I don’t particularly like horror movies, so I suppose I find other ways to keep the hungry alligators from getting out, but I agree with King’s notion that those alligators exist below the “civilized forebrain.” This is original sin, our sin nature. And this is who we are.
The celebration of humanity that followed the Marathon bombings became increasingly difficult to keep up as the week progressed, of course. As speculation fueled by greedy and sloppy reporting in the media took hold, as innocent young men were falsely accused, as Muslims in and around Boston began to fear leaving their homes, and as their fears were realized in some disgusting acts of abuse against members of their religion, the images of selfless heroes subsided.
And then, when the identities of the bombers were revealed, even while the authorities searched for them, we began to hear, as we often do, how they didn’t seem the type to commit these atrocities. Particularly, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been described as a fairly popular student athlete at a Cambridge high school. He was enrolled at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth. His social media accounts have been scoured and he seems, by all accounts, normal.
This is because, and it pains me to say to it, he is normal. Most of us will never commit the kind of evil acts that he and his brother did, but we all have the capacity to do so. The Boston Marathon bombings didn’t show us how good humanity is in the face of evil, they showed us how good we are at suppressing that evil, and just how fragile the barrier is between our civilized brains and the alligators beneath.
As I watched the empty speculative reporting on each of Boston’s local news channels on Marathon Monday and clutched my newborn daughter to my chest, I felt obliged, with tears pooling in my eyes where they had pretty much stayed since she was born nearly two weeks prior, to apologize to her. To warn her. To tell her that the world she had just been born into is truly full of beautiful, wonderful things and that her mother and I would do our best to show her those things, but that it is also a place where, on a sunny spring day, unthinkable evil can crack through the thin facade of civilized life and remind us of the depravity we each carry inside us.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to her. “I’ll do my best to protect you,” I promised.
Naturally, she kept right on sleeping in my arms, blissfully unaware and safe for now.
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