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Boston is not New York

April 16, 2013, at 2:45 PM
Carlos Arredondo, one of the civilian heroes who helped the wounded at the Boston Marathon, leaves the scene with a blood-soaked flag on April 15.

Carlos Arredondo, one of the civilian heroes who helped the wounded at the Boston Marathon, leaves the scene with a blood-soaked flag on April 15. Photo: Darren McCollester/Getty Images

One of the frustrating legacies of September 11 is that a lot of commentators buy into the idea of an artificial, ahistorical "mentality" that somehow kicked in on September 12, a "mentality" that supposedly brought out the best from Americans, erased partisan distinctions, unified the country, and helped New York struggle back to life. 

No: The heroism of 9/11 happened on 9/11. It happened during the terrorist attacks, when firefighters ran into the burning towers, or even when Donald Rumsfeld, ignoring protocol, rushed outside to help tend to the wounded at the Pentagon. Political comity? A fig-leaf. Policy decisions made in the direct aftermath of 9/11, and I guess you could call them "9/12 mentality" policy decisions, led to two wars, only of one of which was justified, the enormous expansion of the national security bureaucracy, intense political polarization, and a siege syndrome that seemed to bypass the professional filters of politicians, journalists, and government workers, not to mention a citizenry that had to struggle to contain anti-Arab biases. It took YEARS for the U.S. to figure out how to do counter-terrorism and anti-terrorism correctly. That 9/12 mentality? Torture, GITMO, and significant, virtually oversight-less changes to the law. We're still trying to figure out how this new reality jibes with our long-standing legal traditions. 

Even if Boston's bombings are the work of militants, home-grown or otherwise, who have jihadi-type complaints about the U.S., there is no responsible way to link the event to 9/11. To do so would be to make a category error. We have to resist it. Both events were public, "rare and spectacular," and random. But one killed a couple of people, and is simply not preventable in any kind of open society. Been to a football game recently? Then you've been searched coming in. A political event? An EOD K-9 has been through to check for bombs. It's not easy to make a bomb, despite what you read, but it's easy enough, and there are hundreds of millions of people inside the United States, and dozens of them make actual bombs every year. Others go into elementary schools and murder children; others shoot up movie theaters. 

Asking for perspective the day after we all witnessed something as horrifying as a man being wheeled away from a bombing scene with his legs blown off may not seem sensitive, but it would be harmful to say, as one former network anchor man who shall remain nameless, that the innocence we feel at large public events is somehow lost. Maybe for him. But for the rest of us, we've come to incorporate the threat of something bad happening into our calculus. We rightly reason that the probability of an attack is extremely low. And police departments and security companies do a generally good job of hardening targets. That does not, and will not change. What will produce more fear is if the media tells us that we must be afraid of sporting events from now on. Never will a security cordon be perfectly impenetrable. Let's figure out what happened before we make any assumptions. We do not need metal detectors at the entrances to malls. 

One of the best qualities that Americans have, a quality that professional emergency management people have always doubted, is resilience.  That quality is an enduring one. It existed before 9/11; it existed after 9/11; it exists today. Focus on resilience. Celebrate it. It's an exceptional quality. Nurture it.  

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