Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Thoughts on the Boston Marathon Bombing

Like most of you, I was shocked by the news of the Boston Marathon bombing.  I was glued to Twitter and Google News, checking every five minutes, waiting for each additional bit of news.

Now that nearly 24 hours has passed, I have some thoughts I'd like to share.  Unlike most of my writing, this isn't organized around a single theme; rather, it's a series of thoughts that I felt compelled to share.  As a writer, my first instinct when dealing with any impactful event is to write; putting words on (virtual) paper helps me channel my energies, even when I feel sad or helpless.

1. The attack was particularly heinous because it targeted families.

I lived in Boston for five years, and the Boston Marathon is an integral part of the city's culture.  The Marathon takes place on Patriots' Day, which is one of the seemingly endless array of holidays that are celebrated in Boston and nowhere else.  This means that it's a family day--kids aren't in school, and many families throng the marathon course to cheer the runners on.  Because of the wretched Boston weather, Patriots' Day also serves as the unofficial start of Spring (and the official start of Spring Break).

Any attack on a civilian population is heinous, but the timing of these attacks were particularly bad; almost like conducting an attack on July 4.  At this time, it's not known who is responsible for the bombing or what his/her/their motivations might be, but whoever planned it deliberately set out to harm the innocent and ruin what is one of the happiest days of the year in Boston.

2. Social Media has become an integral part of how I and many other process important events.

I remember hearing about the 9/11 attacks.  I was at home, and my mom called and told me to turn on the television.  As the events unfolded, my wife and I watched the television with shock and horror.  Right after that, the emails and phone calls started coming in.

Without social networks or Twitter, word spread via email.  Business school classmates used the class mailing list to report who had and hadn't checked in.  My 1st grade teacher actually called my mother to check on me; she was worried I might have been in New York (now that's a caring teacher!).

This time, word spread on Twitter and Facebook.  Friends who lived in Boston quickly checked in and wrote that they were safe, reassuring anyone who was concerned.  Bits of information were quickly shared on Twitter, as people tried to figure out what was going on.

The entire experience was completely different because information diffusion had become so much faster and more efficient.

One the day after the bombing, I suspect the importance of social media will shift from informational to emotional as we try to process and make sense of the attack.  My friend and classmate Lindsey, who lives in Boston with her family, wrote about what it feels like for Bostonians.  Her daughter, Grace, ran her first road race on Sunday, on the marathon course.

3. A free society is always vulnerable to acts of evil (and so is an unfree one).

The bombs that killed and injured so many were simple IEDs made out of gunpowder and ball-bearings.  They took no particular expertise or resources to assemble.

The Boston Marathon takes place on an open course right in the middle of the city.  There's no way to cordon it off, and that's precisely its charm.

Openness and freedom are based on trust, which means that evil men (and women) can abuse that trust.

That being said, even the most autocratic police state would have a hard time preventing someone from making gunpowder.  You can't ever be completely safe, no matter how much freedom you're willing to give up.

4. Evil ultimately loses because evil is outnumbered.

Given all the advantages that evil holds, why doesn't it win?  Evil loses because evil is outnumbered.

The one good thing about tragedy is that it provides the chance to good to shine.  As Mr. Rogers actually did say (Snopes-verified):
There was something else my mother did that I've always remembered: "Always look for the helpers," she'd tell me. "There's always someone who is trying to help." I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.
As many noted, as soon as the bombs exploded, there were people running towards the scene to render aid.  Soldiers who ran the marathon in full uniform reached the finish line and went to help the wounded.  Former New England Patriot player Joe Andruzzi (whose three brothers were firemen who responded to the 9/11 attacks) was photographed carrying victims to safety.  Local blood banks had to turn people away because so many (including runners who had just finished the race) wanted to donate blood to help the victims.

Perhaps no one serves as a greater example than Alexander Brian Arredondo.  Arredondo, who used to be named Carlos Arredondo, is a quintessential American.  He immigrated to the United States from Costa Rica and became an American citizen in 2006.

He's now known as the "cowboy hat guy" who rushed to the scene to help the wounded.

His son, a U.S. Marine, was killed in action in 2004.  His other son, devastated by his brother's death, committed suicide in 2011.  Arredondo himself tried to kill himself when he learned of his son's death in 2004, but survived and dedicated his life to being a peace activist.  He changed his legal name to Alexander Brian in honor of his two sons.  He was at the finish line of the Marathon with his wife to wait for the runners from the Run for the Fallen Marine, an organization who runs in honor of those Marines killed in action since the 9/11 attacks.

Here is a man who has already lost a son in the service of his adopted country, and who has sacrificed so much, rushing in, heedless of his own safety, to help injured strangers.

It may be that yesterday's tragedy was the work of a single evil man (or woman).  There were hundreds of good men and women who gave freely of themselves to help others.  When evil gets you down, remember that we have evil outnumbered, and we will win.

5. Am I helping?  Am I hurting?  Would I say this if I were in the same room as those affected by the events?

I saw plenty of reflexive comments after the bombing that cynically asked what additional restrictions on freedom might be imposed as a result.

I also saw rancorous debate breaking out on Twitter over whether or not to tweet and retweet reports that hadn't yet been confirmed.

This kind of behavior, while distasteful to me, must be tolerated in a free society.  It's not freedom if you're only free to do what others approve.

But before you jump into the fray, I'd just recommend asking yourself, "Am I helping?  Am I hurting?"  Will your words make something better or bring about a desired action?  Whatever you want to say, would you say it to someone who had a loved one injured or killed by the blast?

Plenty of people are willing to use events to grind their favorite axes or advance their pre-existing agenda.  Yet I'll bet that few of those people would have the nerve to do so if they were in the same room as those affected by the events.

Here's a tip--if what you're saying would get you beaten to a pulp by the innocent victims involved, it's probably not worth saying (though I will still defend your free speech right to say it).

UPDATE: Great minds think alike.  Here's Patton Oswalt's Facebook post, which concludes, "The good outnumber you, and we always will."


Ian said...

Love that Mister Rogers quote. I first read it in his book "The World According to Mister Rogers".

Thanks for sharing Carlos's story.

Chris said...

You can never have enough Mr. Rogers. I'm certain of that.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing. I'm always amazed that our nation's smartest people - stanford, harvard, on and on - are also down to earth and open like yourself. carlos' story is so hard to hear that it makes me flinch. thanks for reminding us that that's what a quintessential american really us...full of hope and despair, sacrifice and pain and above all,we can trust them that they'll dive into a bomb scene to get you out..

Lindsey said...

I've been so hugely, enormously touched by what I've read about Arredondo. So much of what you write here helps me filter through my own crowded and chaotic thoughts. Thank you. xo

Chris said...


While there are folks who let their education go to their head, experience has taught me that none of us really knows that much.

There is something very special about America--I'm always reminded of two quotes from the Battle of Samar (read "Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors) if you ever get a chance.

As overwhelming Japanese forces closed in, the anti-aircraft gunners had nothing to do. An officer told them, "Don't worry boys, we're luring them into 40 mm range!"

After the miraculous end of the battle, in which seven destroyers and destroyer escorts fought off an entire Japanese battle fleet, one of the sailors was heard to shout, "Darn, they're getting away!"

Arik said...

Chris, I lived in the U.S. when 9/11 happened, and the reactions, even by some of the most moderate and pacifist people I know, ranged between desire for revenge and suggestion for self-seclusion. Judging by the reactions of my American friends to these bombings, it's not that different this time.
I believe that the reason for these reactions is the inability to deal, psychologically, with events like these, which is a normal reaction.
Living in Israel, I unfortunately had more than enough experience with civilian/family-targeted acts of terror. All Israelis have. We often react differently. We accept, as much as one can, that this is part of life. This, of course, should not be a normal reaction, but there is no other way of dealing with it, with more and more acts of terror.
The outcomes of the Boston Marathon bombings are painful and tragic, yet they show how Americans are not able yet to deal, emotionally, with such inexplicable tragedies. I actually believe you are fortunate not to be able to deal with this, not having to deal with this time and time again.
Terrorists think that western society is weak because it mourns its dead and is easily affected by acts like this one, because it celebrates life, because it allows for different views and opposing opinions. They do not understand that this is our source of strength. Pluralistic society with fragmented views is a strong one. This is why we come together at difficult times like these. This is why shall overcome and life will win over death.

Chris said...


Always good to hear from you. The Israeli perspective is useful; sadly, as you point out, you have far too much experience with this sort of thing. The good news is that Israel remains a dynamic place, despite these terrible attacks.