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How do we react to Boston horror?

Updated: May 18, 2013 6:31AM

Most people are kind. Most Americans live in comparative safety. We are lucky that way, generally.

Not lucky Monday however. Not at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, where two crude bombs sprayed death and mayhem, killing three, including an 8-year-old boy, Martin Richard, and injuring more than 170, including that boy’s sister and mother.

Among the many bad things that such an atrocity radiates is a sense of danger, of terror. This could happen anywhere. Which is what it’s intended to do, as much as the intention behind such malicious insanity can be understood. Which means, as I see it, that part of the pushback, part of what is required of the bystanders, wondering what to make of all this, is to force ourselves to not be terrorized. “Gather your courage,” Virgil writes, “dismiss your grief and fear.”

What are our responsibilities in this situation? The standard attitude, if Facebook and Twitter are any judge, is solemn prayer and goodwill toward the wounded, a flurry of black ribbons and photos of candles and expressions of blanket support for Boston. I’m not sure how that helps, but it couldn’t hurt, and if it makes you feel better, go for it.

Many thought of themselves, their kids, the marathons they’ve run. That’s OK too — I think it’s natural. You don’t have to gin up a false selflessness just because somebody set off a bomb. I certainly brooded over my own experience of the horror. Monday, having gone out on a story in the morning, I relaxed in the afternoon. About 2 p.m. the dog looked at me in that let’s-go fashion, so I took her for a stroll around Northbrook, which was extra pleasant and at last springlike. Pedestrians smiled at the cute dog, a little girl on a scooter cast a longing look. We paused to let Janet, the always-friendly crossing guard, pet her. If you gave the people kitten faces and piglet tails, it could have been a page from a Richard Scarry children’s book. There was one bit of foreshadowing — it would be trite in fiction — before the Landmark Inn: a bottle cap, on the sidewalk, prongs up, and I thought: “The callousness of people! A dog could hurt her paw on something like that!”

Then we crossed the tracks, rounded the corner for home, and heard the terrible news. It seemed a rebuke, for being so happy.

The immediate questions were: How many died — first reports of two seemed a low figure for bombs going off in such a crowd. And who did it? Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen summed up the reasoning in his graceful, anguished column immediately after the blast.

“And we are left with this unnerving proposition,” he wrote. “If it was home-grown, it was probably an aberration, the work of a ­lunatic. If it was foreign ­inspired or sponsored, we will never feel safe again in our own town.”

That’s the mind-set, though I’m not sure how valid it is — the logic is, if it’s some twisted American maniac acting out of pure evil and personal damage, you arrest him and the threat is gone, while if it were the product of foreign plotters, then their network will still be in place, planning their next strike.

But the overseas terror threat is real, whether it committed this particular act or not. And if a homegrown terrorist perpetrated this deed, there is an endless supply where he came from. No, comfort must come from within. We have to find a balance where we are vigilant without terrorizing ourselves. The marathon was an easy mark, but locking down marathons does nothing to protect the countless soft targets in a free society: the parades and street fairs and kindergarten recesses, considered safe only because no one attacks them, generally.

The shock came Monday, and will only deepen into even-greater horror as the injured are released, the faces of the dead become familiar to us and — inevitably — the perpetrator or perpetrators are known. Authorities and the media have learned their lesson and are reluctant to speculate, and there is no need. We’ll find out soon enough.

In the meantime, it is important that we remind ourselves of our freedoms, of the open and generous society that most of us live in. Not all — there are the Englewoods and places where some may look up and say, “Bitter medicine, huh?” Twitter was alive with radical sorts drawing a false equivalence between what happened in Boston and the wars in Iraq and elsewhere.

That’s their right. When tragedies occur, you are entitled to your reaction. The loons certainly are unimpeded — I never heard the term “false flag” until some conspiracy nut confronted the governor of Massachusetts, wondering were this not a state-sponsored hoax, like Newtown. If he can think like that, you too can have your feelings. If your instinct is to post a ribbon, or say a prayer, or shrug, or shake your fist, that’s fine. You can be scared, but that won’t help any. Me, I watched the Bulls game with my kid, and tried not to think about what just happened.

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