“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” Psalm 23:4
Hours ago, explosions went off in Boston at the end of that city’s well-televised marathon. Legions of runners and spectators were flung into panic as emergency workers mobilized to secure people and information, and the media scrambled for angles to connect eyes around the world. The JFK Library was set on fire. (That incident was apparently not related to the bombing, but that detail is easy to miss.)
It has been over a decade since 9/11 burned away post-Cold War illusions of American impregnability. Arguably, most people had finally moved past the old iron grip of terror that reshaped the political universe. But nothing lasts forever.
America is in many ways a nation under siege. Nobody knows how many people enter the country illegally or who, exactly, they are. Nobody knows how much contraband is spirited past TSA by whom or to what ends. Nobody knows what calculating evil lurks in the shadows or, worse, in plain sight. Nobody knows what tools will next be used against which innocent victims. Nobody knows when the center will fold to the chaos scratching at the gates of this project called civil society. Nobody knows when and why the bells of our finale will toll.
One important thing to remember is not to panic. Medical staff and firemen will save lives, police and federal officials will conduct investigations, and ordinary people will hold their loved ones a little bit tighter for a while. At some point, lawmakers will be pushed to consider some kind of action, because there is the perennial expectation that something must be done after a tragedy. In fear and trembling, all manner of ideas may be put forward and all manner of associations will be floated to push action on other issues. But contrary to what might be said tomorrow—and what has been said in the aftermath of other tragedies—there should be no rush to action. Too many problems today were born of well-intentioned fixes dreamt up yesterday.
Bombings are a unique kind of terror. A gunman has to reveal himself and direct his weapons, allowing for a potential response. A recklessly driven automobile has limited options for surprise and can be blocked off and trapped. Hostile aircraft can be shot down or evaded. Ample protections are in place to keep most benign planes from crashing and most passenger ships from sinking. Muggings and robberies are generally not expected to result in death. But a bomb can wipe out 100,000 lives in the time it takes to turn a key, brandish a weapon, or pull a trigger. It can be almost anywhere and anything at nearly any time. And a bomb, unlike a car or a gun, can be made in a kitchen or bathroom.
In fall 2003, I was a 14-year-old freshman in an American high school in Europe. Not yet a year had gone by since our military parents and their fellow servicemembers had invaded Iraq. Already, the venture was controversial, especially in Europe, but controversies are a dime a dozen in politics. What I did not see coming was the summer of 2004. By then, I was 15 and a few months away from returning to America after three years living abroad. By then, I had begun to establish myself as an honor student with budding athletic potential. By then, I had completed a year of JROTC and discovered myself a decently able marksman. By then, I was starting to think that growing up on Army bases in wartime might not be so injurious after all.
And by then, I had already endured more bomb threats than I have ever known in all the time I have spent on this Earth before and since that school year.
I am not really sure what happens to teenagers when communities are no longer assumed to be safe. When bus routes have to be changed because hostile agents have marked the stops and registered their threats. When bombs are rumored to appear on train tracks that run across the barbed wire fence behind the gym. When trained military dogs and uniformed men with fully automatic rifles are among the most familiar—and perhaps even comforting—fixtures of your universe. When the line between fortress and prison begins to slip and you no longer remember how you saw the world before that time.
On the one hand, I don’t remember being all that terrified in ninth grade, nor could I understand what all the fuss was about when, years later, my suburban Virginia high school had a solitary bomb scare. (It turned out to be a false alarm.) On the other hand, something about the televised projection of the explosions, dust, screams, and searing images from the Boston Marathon bombing left a grown man in Virginia shuddering in the panicked throes of a lachrymose breakdown.
Terror, born of the sentient abyss of panic, is both insidious and resilient. It has an odd way of luring you into the eye of a hurricane raging in patient silence. For however long it pleases, you may remain insouciant and comfortably unmolested by devils as real as they are unseen. But at any moment, a shift in the wind may reveal some inkling of the hellish precipice that lingers closer than you ever dared to imagine.
The veil of civil society has always been as thin as the drywall behind which we hide from the wild things in the dark. There were potential bombers, shooters, infanticidal maniacs, and murderers of all kinds walking among us yesterday, and they will still be smiling in our faces and bidding us faux salutations tomorrow. The thing to remember is to defeat the urge to panic.
Our forebears did not build civilization as an altar to the throne of terror.