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Editorial: Aftermath of a Tragedy; Reacting to the Attack in Boston

When the unfathomable happens, as it did in horrifying fashion near the finish line of the Boston Marathon Monday, it is only human nature to try to fathom it — to ask who would do such a thing and why. But in the absence of hard information, it is fruitless and perhaps dangerous to speculate. As President Obama put it Monday night: “We still don’t know who did this or why, and people shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts.”

By the time you read this, some of those facts may have been provided — for instance, whether a lone individual or a terrorist group was responsible for the carnage in which at least three people were killed and scores injured, several of them critically. But even without basic information, there are some useful markers for reflection about the Boston bombings.

One is how many Upper Valley residents had ties of family or friendship to those who were participating in or watching the race, as reporters David Corriveau and Maggie Cassidy detailed in yesterday’s Valley News.

A former colleague of ours checked in this morning reporting that he had celebrated his birthday at Fenway Park watching the Red Sox earlier Monday.

“We emerged intending to walk to the marathon finish line to cheer runners home, but chose instead to watch them in Kenmore Square. We were on the T when the bombs went off; the subway was shut down, and we emerged into chaos at the Hynes (Convention) Center stop, greeted by police and ambulance after ambulance rushing by, confused people trying to sort things out on cell phones. We ended up walking across the river and through Cambridge to the Alewife station, where we had left our car — a good five miles. Later, watching TV, we recognized runners we had cheered crossing the line as the first bomb went off. We were very, very lucky.”

This sense of intimate connection was reinforced by the fact that the attack occurred in New England’s front yard, in a city — and in a place in that city — that so many of us are familiar with. So the events did not seem remote: It was entirely possible to imagine oneself caught up in the chaos and pain and confusion of those terror-stricken moments and the anxiety of the aftermath.

The televised images of those moments of terror inevitably summoned up those of 9/11, indelibly imprinted on the nation’s consciousness, although it soon became clear that the scale of this attack and its effects, although terrible, were thankfully of far less magnitude. But what the two did have in common was an iconic target, presumably selected with the intent of striking at the heart of a singularly American institution.

Although it is hard to try to put this event in perspective so soon, it is worth noting that in the years since 9/11, the United States has been remarkably free of terrorist attacks. Numerous terrorist plots have failed or been foiled, but it has always been clear that it is impossible to prevent every strike on American soil. The nature of the world we live in is that ordinary people are on the front lines and may become casualties. There are a couple of ways for individuals to react to this new fact of life: One is to sharply circumscribe activities in the name of safety; the other is to get on with life while practicing sensible vigilance. This mirrors the choice society also has: to reflexively truncate liberty in the name of security or to do what we prudently can to affirm liberty’s ideals in the face of an attack on them. The grievous damage bombs do is only compounded by making the wrong choice.

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