Another victim of Boston Marathon bombings: public spaces

Thomas Schaller fears the Boston Marathon attack may terrorize us into abandoning our precious gathering places

April 16, 2013|Thomas F. Schaller

Less than 24 hours ago, an apparent act of terrorism marred this year's Boston Marathon.

It's too early to know many of the details about this tragic event. Late last night, officials were reporting three deaths and well over 100 injuries; soon we will have a clearer sense of how many were killed and wounded. Their families, friends and co-workers will pay tribute to and then bury their loved ones. When they are ready, some of the wounded survivors and spectators will come forward to recount the horrors they experienced.

We may also learn quite a bit in the coming days, weeks and months about the perpetrators of these attacks — or maybe we won't.

The bombings in Boston may have been the work of one person or a group. The terrorists may be foreign or homegrown. They may claim responsibility or slink away in cowardly silence. Their agendas may be domestic or global; their anger directed toward economic or political decisions; their intended audiences officials in Boston or Massachusetts or Washington or even the United Nations. I even suppose it's possible that, like some Chris Nolan-style Batman plot come to life, the Boston attacks will turn out to be the act of a lone, crazy person who wanted to inflict pain and suffering on innocents solely to satisfy dark demons that reside inside his or her twisted head.

But we don't need to know every detail to draw a few sad, cautionary lessons about what happened Monday.

We already know that, whether intended by the perpetrators or not, the targeting of such a well-attended event in a major city has once again diminished and deteriorated our shared public and psychic space. This deterioration applies most immediately and directly to Bostonians and the out-of-town visitors who ran Monday's Boston Marathon, or came to support friends and family members who did, or who attended the Red Sox baseball game at Fenway Park played each year as part of the city's Patriots Day celebration.

Like New York and Washington — the intended targets of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — Boston is not only a busy urban center but a symbolic target. Our eventual first president, George Washington, took command of the continental army in nearby Cambridge; his victory over the British in Boston, as superbly recounted by David McCullough in his book "1776," ignited revolutionary hopes across the colonies. Without Boston, the cradle of our democracy, perhaps there is no America.

Now, what I'm about to say next is in no way meant to diminish those who were killed, wounded or simply traumatized Monday — or by the 9/11 attacks, the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City's Murrah Federal Building, or the explosion at the Atlanta Olympics a year later. (As it happens, I was in Centennial Park in 1996.) Nor do I intend to frighten readers or compound the anguish in Boston or any earlier terrorist attack.

But we must acknowledge that the primary purpose of terrorism is not to kill victims but to terrorize survivors. And we must further recognize that Boston may merely be the next stage in a horrific, albeit logical, progression.

Airports, train stations and government buildings are now more safe, but surely many people remain afraid to fly or may hesitate to, say, tour the Statue of Liberty. Bombings at the Olympics and now a major marathon may make some Americans reconsider attending large, heavily televised public events. We've also seen mass violence in less densely populated venues: Whether one blames their mental states, their access to weaponry, or both, crazed gunmen in recent years have terrorized a Virginia college campus, an Arizona shopping mall, a Colorado movie theater, and a Connecticut elementary school. And few readers in Maryland will ever forget the horror that gripped this region for three weeks in 2002 during which 10 people were killed in the D.C. Beltway sniper attacks.

What's next? Libraries and state parks? Motels and restaurants? Health clubs and night clubs? Coffee shops and pubs?

I hope the answer is: None of these, anywhere, ever again. But does anyone honestly believe that's what the future holds?

Terrorism poisons if not destroys our public spaces and the physical and psychic experiences we share with one another while in such spaces. After incidents like Monday's, it's tempting to retreat and turn our public spaces into fortresses — a temptation that may grow if targets evolve past crowded, symbolic venues into smaller, routine locations.

We must be vigilant about finding and punishing the perpetrators who terrorized Boston. But we must be equally vigilant about refusing to surrender our public places and events, for doing so is as fatal to our collective identities as the improvised explosive devices were to the still-uncounted and unfortunate victims at Monday's marathon.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is Twitter: @schaller67.

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