Refusing to Be Terrorized by Terror

We know how we feel about terrorism, deeds that are to be hated, doers of which are evil. And we know the messages that come inevitably following such acts: Don't give them what they want. Those messages have come. 

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In the absence of much new information about how what happened at the finish line of the Boston Marathon yesterday occurred—bomb blasts, people dead, people gravely injured, and still no explanation of who or why—it's difficult to know what to do next. In President Obama's address today, he used a word that's become totemic in times such as these: "Anytime a bomb is used against innocent civilians, that is an act of terror," he said. "We also know the American people refuse to be terrorized."

There is a strange sense of near-relief at this naming, of giving a word to the feelings we're having, even as a lot of people considered the act terrorism from the beginning, and others danced around what to call it for much of a day.

We are in the early stages of an investigation right now. There is little, if anything, being revealed to the public about who this person (or persons) might be, or why this act was committed. We do know, however, that 176 people were wounded, 17 critically, in the blasts. We know that three people, one an 8-year-old boy, were killed by bombs intended to kill and wreak havoc. We know how we feel when things like this happen—confused, angry, scared, horrified—and how there's just no "right" way to feel. And we know the messages that come inevitably following such acts: Don't give them what they want. Don't let the terrorists win.

Earlier on Tuesday, along with asking for witness submissions of photographs and video taken near the blast, the FBI briefing focused on reassurances that teams are working to reduce any threat. People were encouraged to "live their life" as much as possible in the days to come. We are being instructed already on the need to get back to some kind of "normal," to live without fear. As Bruce Schneier wrote yesterday at The Atlantic, "We need to be angry and empathize with the victims without being scared.... We don't have to be scared, and we're not powerless. We actually have all the power here, and there's one thing we can do to render terrorism ineffective: Refuse to be terrorized." Andrew Sullivan adds, "We really do have to adopt a more stoic response to these acts of evil. It is the only long-term thing that deprives them of their power."

These are beautiful, strong sentiments, and they're far easier said than done, because part of the power of terrorism involves sapping our reason and turning us into people whose mortality is of preeminent concern. If you're afraid for your life, it is very hard to live. How can we simply refuse to be terrorized? We have been terrorized. We felt it yesterday, and we still feel it today. We see it in increased security and this word, again, a word that reminds us of not only now but also of terrible times past.

The use of the word terrorism is important, just as it's important to know that that word is vague. Merriam-Webster defines it as "the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion," and from the Concise Encyclopedia, we get that it's the "systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective." A terrorist, as we seem to use the word today, is anyone whose goal is to create terror, usually via dramatic, visible harm to other humans. At least colloquially, a terrorist is James Holmes, or Adam Lanza, or the Al Qaeda hijackers who flew planes into the Twin Towers, or people who bomb embassies. What these terrorists have in common is that they want other people to feel scared, in mass quantities, for some reason or other. That "political objective" might be as general as a will to inflict pain and fear; it might be more orchestrated, with the intent to bring down a country, or to destroy it economically.

Perhaps there are better words we might use than terrorism. As Reuters' Sam Youngman tweeted, "It would make me happy if we never used the word terrorism again, replacing it forever with the word cowardice." But as vague as the word is technically, we also very much know what it means, and the reaction to mobilize against it—and the fear it begets—is powerful. Because we know that fear is its power.

As for that terror, those of us who are lucky have only the news and the processing of that news to contend with, as well as our own worries about what could happen next, possibly in our own cities, in which security precautions are being taken, possibly to our own families. Others who have not been so lucky have injuries, or may have lost lives, or loved ones. Others have witnessed terrible things. It's easy to say that we should not be afraid, that we should not "let the terrorists win." But of course, we are scared, because what happened yesterday could have happened to anyone, to us or to people we care about. This is not just a "could" for the 176 wounded, the three dead, for the people who love them, and for the people who were there.

I think, though, that the desire to refuse to be terrorized is a good one—it's a way to remind ourselves of what we value in society. And I think we can refuse to be terrorized at the same time that we admit we're freaked out, horrified, and even afraid. Acknowledging that maybe we're scared and that, even in the face of human fear, we need to be bigger than that, is important. Perhaps the best way to not feel terrorized is to not just do what we do in our daily lives, but do it better. Better by donating blood, donating money to organizations that are helping victims, or simply helping out in whatever ways we can—maybe by being  kind to and patient with each other, as we were in the aftermath of 9/11, as we were after Sandy hit the tri-state area. We should always be this way, but sometimes we forget. It's easy to forget as we go through the particular challenges of our self-interested lives.

The truth is, as Schneier points out, "Terrorism is much harder than most people think." Another truth is that we've been largely spared events like this—a bombing that harks back to 1996 and the Atlanta Olympics in terms of numbers injured and the occurrence at what should be a joyful athletic event (remember, it took five years to catch Eric Rudolph)—in the decade-plus that's now come between us and 9/11. Awful things have indeed happened, but many have been stopped. We've been pretty lucky, particularly compared to what happens in other countries around the world. We expect to be lucky; we expect to be safe in our streets and not to have such events tainted by the doings of some sick person. We expect that 8-year-old boys won't die as they watch marathoners finish their races, just like we expect that classrooms of elementary school children, or movie theaters of people, won't be gunned down by heavily armed young men. This continued expectation of safety and life without fear (and a commitment to make that happen) is what keeps us from being terrorized, even in the face of terroristic acts.

It is a challenge to feel unafraid, though, particularly when there's so much unknown.

In the days that follow, the gruesome photos and the horrifying stories will slowly fall off the front pages of our newspapers. Coverage will be devoted to a lesser degree to this story, as we've seen again and again. The investigation will continue, and I hope that whoever did this will indeed "feel the full weight of justice," as President Obama promised yesterday. I hope, too, that this happens soon, not so that we can quickly forget, but so that we will not be thinking about this the same way we were yesterday, the way we are today. In the best case scenario that will be because we've regained our feeling of safety, even as that's overlaid on new learnings, a new "normal."

Right now, though, it's too soon for that. We still need to mourn, and we need to find out what happened. We need to learn as much as we can—this is always the desire—to prevent something like this from happening again. And yes, we need to not feel terrorized, and to regain to some extent our feelings of normalcy, by commuting, by doing the work we do, by living our lives, at the same time that we acknowledge we feel anything but normal.

Following the news of the Boston Marathon bombings yesterday, Patton Oswalt wrote an beautiful post on Facebook about how humans—most of us—are not bad. He concluded with this line: "So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, 'The good outnumber you, and we always will.'"

There is power to thinking like that, to continue believing in the good, in the face of bad. And that's the thing whoever did this wants to take away from us. Let's not let that happen as we seek to live our lives in the aftermath of what happened yesterday. If there's a way right now to refuse to be terrorized, I think it's in that.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.