Emerging from the ashes

Although national tragedies are painful, they show the strength of U.S. citizens in times of crisis

Since I last sat down to compose a column — a mere week ago — our nation has been wracked by two heartbreaking tragedies: the Boston Marathon bombings on Monday, April 15, and the explosion at a fertilizer plant in Waco, Texas on Thursday, April 18. In a year of school shootings, international war and nuclear crises, it is remarkable how the American public has retained its sense of horror at the surfacing of evil in our society: an increasingly frequent occurrence that threatens to sharpen our cynicism. However, the sad reality is that a decade of the global “war on terror,” increased airport security, heightened alerts, bloated military budgets and a curtailment of individual liberties in the name of national security has transformed the nation. Americans have become fluent in such terms as “radical Islam” and “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a household name.

Indeed, the years since 9/11 have been a rapid and relentless loss of innocence for our nation. We no longer feel safe or complacent. The vast oceans that for so long seemed a buffer from harm have been irreversibly shrunk, starting first with the attack on Pearl Harbor and finished off with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Events that are supposed to be carefree — sporting competitions, concerts, speeches and now marathons — are marred by the necessity of stringent security measures, reminding us with every pat-down and metal detector that there are people in our nation who wish to kill us for no other reason than that we are Americans. But for all the negativity and fear that this new world has instilled in America, there is yet some good that may come from it all. For my last piece of the semester, I’d like to reflect on how these incidents and transformations, and most especially the bombings in Boston, have revealed a new character to the American people, one that is resilient in the face of terror.

No two terrorist incidents are the same, and many of the errors in judgment that have followed in the wake of national tragedies can be blamed on people drawing too many connections between attacks. However, I think it is useful to remember how our nation reacted to 9/11 in order to see how far we have come in terms of facing terrorism on our soil.

The first word that comes to mind when one thinks of the September 11 attacks should be “chaos.” America was sent reeling. During the crisis a sense of bewilderment and horror overcame the average citizen; those on the streets of New York watching the attacks unfold speculated wildly about what could be the cause, often at a loss for words when trying to describe what was playing out in front of them. It was as though the Greeks had suddenly sprung out of their wooden horse in the midst of our modern Troy, ambushing us behind walls we had believed impregnable. The fabric of our secular and modern society was rent apart by forces of destruction we thought would never again visit our shores. Our leaders reacted by rallying the troops, assembling the armada, declaring war on the world and sending forth a mighty host to lay waste to our enemies.

A decade of war and terror later, and we are a wiser, more capable people. Don’t misunderstand me — 9/11 was a terrible loss for our nation. But if we are to take anything good from what happened on that day, it should be this: Americans are no longer cowed by terrorism. If we look at how individuals acted in the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombings, we are bombarded with examples of clear-headedness, determination and outright heroism. Ordinary citizens ran toward the bombsite mere seconds after the explosion, giving aid wherever necessary. Police officers acted promptly and professionally, and strangers cooperated with each other to get help to those who needed it.

Again, please do not mistake this message. I am not in any way implying that people did not act with heroism during the 9/11 attacks. But the level of chaos and bewilderment was visibly lessened during the Boston bombings. We see this reaction in countries accustomed to acts of terror: ordinary civilians seem to immediately jump into a kind of “crisis mode,” defaulting to taking care of the victims of the attack rather than shutting down in fear and confusion. For Americans, the concept of domestic terror attacks is no longer foreign; our collective national consciousness has digested this phenomenon, and the result has been a populace that can readily respond to acts of terror. We are on the lookout for Trojan horses.

This attitude is mirrored in our political leaders. Compared to the reactionism and loaded rhetoric that accompanied 9/11, the response has been noticeably more sober. Our leaders have rightfully condemned the attacks as heinous and unacceptable, but, for the most part, inflammatory and ignorant remarks have been rare. President Barack Obama was careful to avoid jumping to conclusions or assigning blame: “We still do not know who did this, or why, and people shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts,” he said. “But make no mistake: we will get to the bottom of this, we will find out who did this, we’ll find out why they did this. Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups, will feel the full weight of justice.”

Appropriate action will be taken, and changes made where necessary, yet one has the distinct impression that those in office are wary of making unfounded assumptions or taking overly aggressive action. Public officials are beginning to treat terrorism as it deserves to be treated: with a firm sense of justice tempered by a level head and a watchful eye for overreaction.

It is hard to look at 9/11 and find anything worth praising. If we must find something, however, let us take comfort in the fact that we have learned from our past naïveté. Through great loss, we have grown stronger as a nation. We detest terrorism as a rule, but we stand toe to toe with its perpetrators, matching every evil deed with countless acts of mercy and strength. Rather than fear, we show resolve; rather than confusion, purpose. The real story of Boston is how a city experienced the worst of what this world had to offer and emerged triumphant.

Russell Bogue is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His column runs Thursdays.

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