on saying that you are NOT a victim

Since we live very near Boston, friends are writing to inquire about our safety and to commiserate. A colleague from Mexico writes, “Dear Peter, I am so sorry for what happened. My Solidarity with you and all the people of Boston.” Official emails from our various schools and workplaces warn us that we may feel traumatized and we should be on the lookout for signs of depression and panic. Facebook has provided a steady stream of compassionate thoughts. National groups send blast emails of support to “members in Boston and throughout Massachusetts during this difficult time” (quoting from Gov. Dean’s message a few minutes ago).

If you or a person you care about was directly hurt or terrified yesterday, I am very sorry. And if you feel part of a community under attack, then I sympathize. But I would like to state that I was not attacked. I am not in danger. I was not even inconvenienced. And I think it is important to make those points because I don’t want the terrorists to count me as a victim. I don’t want to act in disproportionate or unwise ways out of a sense of threat, and I would rather not contribute to that feeling in the community at large.

After all, we are prone to make very stupid decisions when we feel threatened and violated. Already, Rep. Steve King (R-IA), has used the Boston bombings to argue against immigration reform. Senator McConnell (R-KY) has claimed that we’ve become too “complacent” about domestic terrorism and should now “recommit ourselves to the fight against terrorism at home, and abroad.” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has cited the attacks as “proof, … if proof is needed” that sequestration is bad policy because it cuts funds for law enforcement.

Actually, we spend $43 billion per year on Homeland Security, we have engaged “in the practice of torture” against suspected terrorists, we have redesigned our public spaces and put ourselves to incredible inconvenience to prevent terrorism at home, and yet it has posed an unimaginably low risk to Americans over the last decade. We invaded two countries supposedly in response to 9/11, and just yesterday, 30 Afghans were killed by one US bomb at a wedding.*

I understand that one might feel Boston itself was the victim yesterday. Our State Representative emailed: “As a marathoner and also someone who has long loved Copley Square, I feel deeply the violation of a holy space by senseless violence.” I understand his feelings and I see some benefits to this kind of statement. Unlike philosophical cosmopolitans, I believe in loyalty and commitment to groups, including geographical communities. I must admit that I do not happen to identify with Boston, the Marathon, or Copley Place as our State Rep. does. That is a subjective difference that results from our relatively recent move here. I can sympathize with his feelings, which many neighbors, friends, and colleagues share.

Yet the best way to respond is to count on Boston to bounce back. Monday’s attacks were cowardly murders of individuals, but they did no permanent damage to our metro area of 4.6 million people. Boston was founded in 1630 and has survived many worse events. The attacks could ruin the Marathon and harm the city more generally–but only if we allow them to do so.

*This turns out to have been a hoax. Apologies.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.