After Boston: The Banality of Shock and Sentiment

After Boston: The Banality of Shock and Sentiment

After Boston: The Banality of Shock and Sentiment

Whatever happened to quiet bravery and dignity?


Faneuil Hall, Boston. (Flickr/Tony Fischer)

It’s Sunday and Harvard and Cambridge have started to recover a sense of normalcy—but not quite.

Yesterday my older son texted me the picture of his friend Sylvan with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and their dates, headed off to the high school prom three years ago. My younger son had come home Monday, reporting that one of his schoolmates, a girl who wanted to be a ballerina, had been among the 170 injured at the Marathon finish line. Since then, we’ve learned she’s lost her leg.

Dzhokhar and his brother Tamerlan freed the driver of the Mercedes SUV they hijacked, after killing the MIT policeman, at the Shell station where I’ve bought gas for years, and then fled into the Watertown neighborhood where I used to take my boys for baseball practice. The brothers lived, I learned a few hours ago, just two blocks from the hockey rink where my sons have skated for more than a decade. We’ve driven past the triple-decker where the Tsarnaev boys grew up hundreds of times.

So the drama that played out nonstop on global television Friday has been about my and my family’s life, and the neighborhoods in Cambridge and adjacent Watertown where we’ve live normal lives for more than twenty years.

Nothing Friday—or since Monday really—was normal in Cambridge. Yet as events unfolded, I found myself less fearful of imagined dangers nearby than dismayed by almost everything about the coverage and official reactions to what was unfolding.

My parents lived through the Depression and Second World War; they’d been children in the First World War; and they’d taught us in the Cold War fifties and sixties not to be fearful but to be brave—and quiet about our bravery. When President Kennedy was assassinated, we all wept—but I don’t remember Walter Cronkite offering therapeutic advice to viewers or Lyndon Johnson keening on about “our” suffering and fears.

After the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, there was no maudlin outpouring of “understanding,” no calls for us to hug our children or for our parents to hug us. The Secret Service agents who threw themselves over Kennedy’s slumped body and raced his open limousine to Parkland Hospital, the colleagues of King who cradled him in his last moments on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel or the people who grabbed Sirhan Sirhan and disarmed him in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel weren’t hailed for their “unbelievable courage as first responders,” or held up as icons for veneration. Instead they were respected—quietly respected—for doing what was expected. They had been brave—they knew it, we knew it. That was enough.

Almost everything about the press’s and officialdom’s reactions has struck one false note after another this past week. What happened in Boston was horrific? Really? Hiroshima was horrific; Dresden was horrific; Dachau and Auschwitz, they were horrific.

What happened at the finish line of the Boston Marathon was truly terrible, deeply saddening and a loss we all should mourn—three people, undeserving of their fate, were murdered, and 170 more were injured, mangled in some cases like my son’s schoolmate. Yet the death count was one-tenth of 1 percent of the World Trade Center’s on 9/11—or for that matter, at Pearl Harbor on December 7.

Deaths matter. We all owe the dead our respect—but we owe the living more than what the press and public officials mostly delivered this week. Instead of granting us even one minute of dignified silence, to allow us to gather our thoughts and reflect deeply and privately on what had happened, we were soaked by a fire hose of noise set at full blast; there were words, to be sure, sentences, paragraphs, ideas that poured out, but in the end, they amounted to just noise—and not thought in any meaningful sense of that word.

CNN, MSNBC, Fox and the broadcast networks sprayed us with a bone-chilling, repetitive, pornographically excessive flood of voyeurism that they aimed from the Marathon bomb site from Monday on, mixed with an equally endless tsunami of pre-packaged opinion from the opinionators, most of it speculation without foundation or end.

The governing classes didn’t really do much better.

I’ve hit the “delete” key so many times this week in response to the latest official pronouncements—from Harvard’s president and assorted deans, Massachusetts elected officials, my sons’ school administrators and religious leaders of various rank and denomination—that I may well have to replace the key itself.

All that they wrote seemed to me entirely pre-formed, liturgical in the most banal sense, without truly meaningful or deep reflection on what has happened this past week, its origins or its consequences.

It was as if the minds of the most powerful men and women in our society had been taken over and channeled by 14-year-olds, as if their idea of adulthood contained no hint or clue about the quiet strength and measured ability to reassure without sentimentality or babble that being “adult” once meant.

Social media was even worse—because cliché became thought itself, tweeted and texted bursts of concern in short form the substitute for authentic compassion and feeling, of connection that never ranged beyond the electronically transmissable, never came anywhere close to being ineffably human.

What happened in Boston represents less what is shocking than what might be expected, less horrific than a reminder, less incomprehensible than fully comprehensible if we could only find the courage to see what our own capacities as a nation, our wars, our acts of brutality have guttered into over too many years—which is a loss of vision about what it truly means to be a people committed to creating freedom and justice and dignity and equality for all inhabitants of this small planet of ours.

Rather than endlessly embracing shock and sorrow, we need to find a way to re-embrace a moral and political courage in ourselves that will, not easily or quickly, help do what Martin Luther King told us was always our common task long ago—to see to it that we help individually, in community, as generations and as a nation to bend the arc of the universe toward justice.

Returning to the “normalcy” that defined our world before the Boston Marathon bombs went off is not enough

How are communities of color dealing with the aftermath of Boston? Read Aura Bogado’s interview with author Sohail Daulatzai.

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