In the reaction to the Boston bombings, we are seeing, at least for now, an outburst of balanced outrage. I lived in Boston for seven years in the 1990s. It was a tough place -- not threatening, just tough. Removed from the years of busing that had brought out the us-versus-them worst, it wasn't yet as gentrified and reborn after the multibillion-dollar Big Dig. The DNA of cities takes a while to change, and you could feel in the many reactions from Bostonians that they were hurt, angry, and determined to catch whoever did it. But they were equally determined to keep going without making too many compromises about their lives. The city was shut down on Friday to make it easier for law enforcement to do their job, but for a very specific reason, not some generalized fear.
It's been said for years that we have ample tools via law enforcement agencies to guard against attacks and pursue those who undertake them. The Boston response is classic law enforcement, with the FBI leading the way, the police doing the vital work, and untold numbers of volunteers and responders adding to the mix.
Terror is not an act per se; it's the creation of fear via an act. It's been said that Russia is relatively immune to terror, even after a number of gruesome and far more lethal episodes in recent years. In 2004, a school in Beslan was seized by Chechen fighters. When Russian troops stormed the school, nearly 400 people died. Yet that had little discernible impact on Russian attitudes or behavior. Russians are largely impervious to the effects of terror attacks because they don't expect perfect security. They expect a world fraught with peril, and probably too much, though their history suggests that peril is the norm. Hence random acts of terror don't terrorize.
Yet England, Spain, France and Israel have also been subject to domestic attacks, Israel especially, and they have managed to thread a path between changing their chosen way of life and increasing their vigilance. The Israelis have defied the worst of domestic attacks by refusing to stop living the way they wish. If a café was bombed, there was urgency to reopen quickly and collect contributions from patrons for a guard. Paris, London and Madrid all have had subway and train bombings in the past 20 years, but these have not lead to massive external changes in how their vital hubs were used daily. Instead, they led to far more camera surveillance and occasional police presence, much has been the case in New York City this past decade.
It's too soon to say with certainty that the collective response to Boston indicates both a more mature and more effective phase in how we deal with danger. Yes, there will be changes to the marathon next year, in Boston, and then also in New York, London and wherever races are held. It may be harder to get near the finish line, but the danger won't disappear. Someone can always find a way if what they want is to kill and maim. What can change is how much these acts matter to us, and how much strength we exude, not by reshaping our lives to prevent them but by defying them -- by changing our lives so little.