In the Boston bombing tragedy, a corner in the war of terror seems to have been turned — perhaps because it leads us straight into a home territory we can’t turn away from.
We’ve been reminded that individuals, not groups, commit atrocities — and that communities are what take shape to heal. We’ve seen fearless and careful public servants follow the law that lets us act in concert and keeps predators beyond a human fabric they can’t long survive outside. We’ve seen tweeting congressman calling for torture be overwhelmed in a tide of citizens who would rather have us think our way out of danger.
The years from Clinton to Obama saw the American people turn increasingly humane to each other and callous toward those outside — the arc of racial justice and acceptable identity rose steadily as opportunity increased and equal pay became an unavoidable (if still too unheeded) issue and marriage equality gathered momentum, even as the Executive’s extrajudicial action on matters we’d rather not think about advanced under Clinton with extraordinary rendition and continued under Bush with secret and not-so-secret gulags and expanded under Obama with widespread, unaccountable mechanized warfare.
But that wave too may have broken. After Boston, the current of public opinion clearly tends toward treating this hometown monster as a family problem. The personal media that didn’t exist when the age of terror began, and which has done as much as topple dictators, gives us a new sense of how we can be heard — though so far literally having our say is as far as it goes in this country. Paying attention and taking action has always been a distinction not tuned in too clearly in our spectator society. But in the absence of ballot democracy, discussion can take on mounting power; we know now that it’s as unnecessary to be silent as it was always impossible and unwise.
I sometimes gloomily think that we’ve stayed as silent as we have on torture and secret prisons and drones because, realizing we have no influence on these things, we sense we can let them hasten a time when America no longer has the authority, and the distorting responsibility, of being a world power — that we could “decline” into the peaceful productiveness and creative contentment of our own former European rulers, and let China or Russia learn the lesson next. Just as ruefully, I wonder if we are resolved to try the Boston bomber as an everyday (if extreme type of) criminal and not a “foreign” combatant because it gives us a face, a personality, a shape to put on unresolvable traumas like the Newtown shooting, with which we can link this twisted young man and his mass murder in our minds. Someone we can “get,” and by get I mean both hold to account, and possibly figure out.
But engaging with the world’s peoples as an equal, and understanding what can go wrong in the human mind and how we can process it with dignity and control, are good for us. And the progress of humanity belongs with the people, for the leaders to follow, so the persistence of warfare and lawlessness by our presidents is predictable and meaningless while our own attempts — having no choice, and no higher preference if we did — to reconcile, with each other and with the unthinkable extremes of human behavior, are the true trajectory of the future.
Putting an anonymous face on terror was in the interest of the authorities who’d most like to perpetuate conflict and keep themselves in power as the ones who supposedly can prevent it or prevail. But coming face to face with monsters on our own home ground is important — not to “recognize” them, but to remember who we are.