Blog Post

Terrorism at the Marathon

Some responses, hastily and inconsiderately set down.
It's inveterate in me, a kind of urge and urgency, to imagine things from the point of view of the bomber. That they wanted to make a point. The point they made will be a nine-days wonder.  Then, it'll fade into the cosmic background static of atrocity, one of many, dwarfed by 9/11 which is itself becoming background.  So to make that point, they were willing to steal years and decades of life from others: from the maimed, from the dead, from the survivors of the dead.  And that's how terrorism works—it's the sheer disproportionality of what the victims pay to what the terrorists get.  A week on the front pages versus lives that could still be being lived in 2070.  That's the trade that terrorism not only makes but wants.  Forgetting right or wrong (this is the way I try to imagine it from their point of view), you could think that you're not getting much—just headlines for a few days—for what you're paying: all those lives, all that time, all that human being.  But that's what gets you the headlines: the wanton disproportion of the destruction.  That's the point.  And somehow, more than the murder, the disproportionality is what horrifies me.

"But terrible things are happening every day," Roth writes in Everyman about everything not 9/11.  Accidents and murders.  What makes this different (for me, and I imagine for many) is that I can't imagine how anyone is entitled to sacrifice others to that exchange.  For an iPhone or some sneakers, sure.  I can imagine that.  You're getting something, and besides they should have given it up.  The victim is in part to blame for refusing a better exchange: they could have given up their money instead of their life.   But here the exchange is so infinitely more costly—the bomber doesn't even get an iPhone out of it; the denominator is 0 once the headlines fade—and, added to that, in no way a free exchange, since the victims were given no alternative to death, that it just seems... unfair.  Not unfair the way "collateral damage" is unfair (that was Timothy McVeigh's excuse, and I think—being who I am—that he needed that excuse when he thought about what he'd done).  Collateral damage isn't the point.  It happens and it's terrible.  But this was out and out theft, because the bombers wanted the deaths of the innocent.  (Again, this is why I think Ward Churchill had to convince himself that those in the WTC were "little Eichmanns," not innocents.  But killing little Eichmanns is not the point of terrorism—though maybe it was the point of the 9/11 bombers who might have seen themselves as striking at the powerful, not the innocent.)  It's the unfairness of the enormous theft that I am left thinking about.  It's the ontological inconsiderateness of the bombers.

When I was a kid I would occasionally get mugged for lunch money and the like.  The muggings tended to have a ritualized form, a widespread one, at least in our neighborhood. Juvenile mugger: "Lend me a dime."  Juvenile me: "I don't have any money." Mugger:  "Yeah? Whatever I find I keep?" Followed by frisking and keeping. Because I'd lied, it was okay for them to punish and take my money.  We both understood that.  But Monday's victims hadn't lied, and yet they were still targeted.
So I guess what I find horrifying is that the disproportionality, the ratio of decades of normal life, Pepsi, beaches, cleaning the kitchen, to a terrorist act that will fade to background in days, that already is fading to background—that this disproportionality is the whole point and meaning of the act.  This is treating humans as means only and not as ends also: treating them as a means only, to hurt and appall those who treat them as ends.
2. Blood is blood everywhere.  Collateral damage from drone attacks, from U.S. bombings; the daily or near daily terrorist attacks in Iraq: yes they count too; each life counts.  So why does it matter that it's close to home?  Is it morally permissible for me to care more (experience more care) about the victims in Boston than for the victims in Chechnya or Congo? The righteous and self-righteous excoriation of those of us who felt Aurora or Newtown or 9/11 or Boston more than U.S. depredations abroad, and also than terrorist attacks abroad—e.g. Mumbai or London—the Tariq Ali / Noam Chomsky claim that we don't see (as the terrorists want us to see?) that violent, deaths, rapacious robbery of time and life, there are as horrible and shocking as they are here: is there a response?  Or must liberals like me just keep on feeling guilty that I don't feel this horrified every minute of the day, since terrible things are happening all the time?  The guilt is sure easier than horror, and then when you're not feeling guilty that's okay, because you can feel guilty about that as well, later.
The immoral reason, endemic though it may be to human nature, to feel worse about Boston than about Baghdad is that you value your own tribe, clan, or nation more than humanity in the abstract.  I can't blame anyone for feeling that way, nor can I blame them for expecting that the groups they're in to defend them even by doing great harm to out-groups.  They have a right to expect this.  But abstractly, this is wrong, or at least unnecessarily self-sustaining and self-amplifying.  If, as the bumper sticker says, God blessed the whole world, no exceptions, then there would be no reason to want exceptions, and we'd all bless the whole world and not just our own, all care about death or violence anywhere, not just our own.
But not far from that immoral reason is a similar but more epistemological reason to care more about what's close to home, and I think this reason is morally defensible, even morally necessary.  Terrible things are happening every day.  But it's a big world, and the percentages of people caught up in something like this are tiny.  We can't, we don't think well in terms of small likelihoods.  We're not wired to.  But our assessment of odds is much better if represented spatially.  That's how we think.  We think in terms of near or far.
Far away from us, terrible things are always happening.  But the distance we attend to is an epistemological heuristic, not a barrier of indifference.  Far away means that the space in which these terrible things are happening is a vast or vaster one, so the terrible things are, all things considered, rare.  The closer they come to us, the higher their frequency.  That's the heuristic.  It's not "American exceptionalism" but an assumption of home as normal, typical, non-exceptional that makes terrorism in our vicinity feel so universally awful. When things happen close by, we read them as that much more likely, via an intuitive inverse square law. Violence close to home means more violence in the world, means the world is a more violent place than we thought, means that violence is that much more likely to be close to anyone's and therefore everyone's home.  That's the way to understand the natural horror we feel (I feel) at these events.  That's how much viciousness and violence and evil there is in the world.  Pedophiles in school after school.  Murderous political attacks everywhere.  We shouldn't be a part of it.  We should demand that our government not be a part of it.  It's not as rare as we thought when it was far away, and we shouldn't allow it to occur far away, either.  It's always close to home.

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William Flesch's picture
William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).