President Barack Obama got this one right. Speaking of the bombings at the Boston Marathon, he said, “So if you want to know who we are, what America is, how we respond to evil – that’s it. Selflessly. Compassionately. Unafraid.”
The dust has barely settled around the site of the bombings. At this writing, no one has yet been caught or come forward to take responsibility. Speculation as to who did this – let alone why – is both rampant and fruitless. Those of us not in law enforcement, or even in the same time zone, will understand all that when we are told and not before.
But even from a distance, the immediate response was obvious and heartwarming. And while the ongoing response will, of course, include security forces, investigations and intense police work, it also is sure to involve caring and community – and, we hope, an ongoing commitment to liberty.
Whoever did this will neither harden Americans’ hearts nor destroy our ability to be ourselves – at marathons, sporting events, concerts or parades. We are not about to shut down the United States because of this.
Calling the bombings a “heinous and cowardly act,” Obama said, “Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror.” That we do not yet know exactly who did it does not change that.
But, he went on, “We also know this – the American people refuse to be terrorized. Because what the world saw ... were stories of heroism and kindness, and generosity and love: Exhausted runners who kept running to the nearest hospital to give blood, and those who stayed to tend to the wounded, some tearing off their own clothes to make tourniquets. The first responders who ran into the chaos to save lives. The men and women who are still treating the wounded at some of the best hospitals in the world, and the medical students who hurried to help, saying, ‘When we heard, we all came in.’ The priests who opened their churches and ministered to the hurt and the fearful. And the good people of Boston who opened their homes to the victims and those shaken by it.”
Who did this, and whatever they thought they might accomplish, Obama accurately described the America they attacked. And that is a people not easily cowed.
True, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans did accept the Patriot Act, greatly enhanced security at airports and other restrictions on their autonomy. But many of those provisions, while potentially worrisome, were not personally intrusive. And al-Qaida had exhibited a monomaniacal and sometimes effective fixation on airplanes. It also was seen as a wartime situation, and often assumed to be temporary.
But Americans have a growing sense that while security is crucial, it can be overdone or is seen as action taken just to be seen to be doing something. (Taking off shoes to board a plane, perhaps?)
The public accepts the need for security, but will it buy holding crowds back 100 feet from the route of a marathon or effectively ending street festivals, block parties or parades. Let’s hope not.
The best way forward is what the president saw in Boston: to react selflessly, compassionately – and unafraid. There is no surer way to confound our enemies, whomever they may be.