Call it "terrorism" if a label helps you make sense of this madness. Find who did it and squash him — or them — with what President Obama called "the full weight of justice." But in the broad scheme of things, such loose ends matter less than this: Life in America changed with the Boston Marathon bombings — again, and as with past attacks, for the much worse.
The Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995 and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were knee-buckling blows that led to an obsession over domestic security and foreign wars that will mark — and mar — our generation. The last mass terrorist assault on U.S. soil was carried out by Maj. Nidal M. Hassan, an Army psychiatrist with loose connections to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, who fatally shot 13 people and wounded 30 more at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009.
There were attacks thwarted by the swelling ranks of federal police: The so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid; an attempt to bomb the New York City subway system in 2009; and an unexploded car bomb in Times Square in 2010.
Boston is another bridge too far. The Boston Marathon and its competitors reflect the best of America — always striving, forever resilient, and, as measured by population and cultural significance, enormous.
You might say it's unfair to compare Boston's relatively low death toll to 9/11 and Oklahoma City, much less to the thousands of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the daily total of gun deaths on U.S. streets.
But the Boston attack is notable not for the number of deaths, but for its social significance. It's one thing — a dastardly, evil thing — to strike symbols of economic and military power. It's another to hit the heart of America. Death at the finish line in Boston makes every place (and everybody) less secure.
Ask a mother or father who lived in Washington from 2001-02 what was more terrorizing to your family: The 9/11 attacks or the "Beltway sniper"? Many will say the sniper. Two men were later charged in the horrifyingly random killings of 10 people in several locations throughout the Washington area. The dead and injured included a 39-year-old man shot while cutting grass, a 54-year-old part-time taxi driver shot while pumping gas, a 34-year-old babysitter and housekeeper shot while reading a book on a bench, and a 13-year-old boy shot while entering his middle school.
Parents kept their kids home from school or formed human barricades at "drop-off" spots. Malls emptied. For three Sundays, I sat in a back pew with my family and looked for terrorists among my fellow parishioners.
From the nation's founding, America has had two sharply delineated lives: one public and one private. The latter is meant to be safe and sacrosanct, part of what Thomas Jefferson called "the pursuit of Happiness." The public life is rowdy and partisan, even violent as reflected in the Civil War. "What happened in Boston," said Meg Mott, professor of politics at Marlboro College in Vermont, "is that the private life got blown up and hit deep in the heart of our bifurcated American lives. The lines were blurred, and that's scary."
They targeted life. They targeted liberty. Now somebody has attacked pursuit of happiness.
In those ugly months after 9/11, we feared there would be a "new normal" for America "“ that no place and nobody would feel safe again, that our churches, schools, malls as well as arenas and other places of great gathering would be killing fields. Those fears were not realized, not right away. Does the nightmare begin with Boston?
Today, officials identified the 8-year-old boy killed at the finish line. His name was Martin Richard. He left a world unworthy of him.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.