In the wake of something terrible, I am generally stunned into silence. There is nothing to be said that can encompass the unfathomable—news of a pedophile football coach, news of pedophile priests, a bombing in a country far away, a mass shooting in a movie theater, a mass shooting at a high school, a mass shooting at an elementary school, a bombing at the finish line of a marathon, the final mile of which was dedicated to the victims of a mass shooting at an elementary school.
What wearies me is how often I have found myself stunned and silent in recent years. What especially wearies me is having such a finely honed vocabulary for tragedy.
On Monday, April 15, during the running of the Boston Marathon, there were two explosions near the finish line. The elite runners had already finished their races but there were still many runners on the course, many spectators on the sidelines cheering the runners as they tested their limits and reminded us of what it means to be human, always striving for something greater.
We don’t know facts yet, not really, because it is too soon. In some ways, it will always be too soon to have definitive answers and numbers and explanations. Authorities do know, as of this writing, that three people are dead including an eight-year-old boy. More than 130 people are injured, some critically, some children. No one has claimed responsibility for the explosions. No suspects have been taken into custody. It has been hours and we still know so little while wanting to know so much.
A sense of community swells during these collective gasps of horror, hopelessness, helplessness. Whether loved ones live near the epicenter of a tragedy or not, many of us call those who matter most to check in, to hear familiar voices, to say, “I am here,” and to ask, “Are you there?”
We take to our social networks in disbelief, in anger, to help by sharing what we hope is useful information for the people who most need it or offering a place to stay for those in need, to get a better sense of what is happening, who is responsible, why this terrible thing is happening, as if there could ever be satisfying answers.
And of course, there is the social media sanctimony. If we cannot police the wrongdoers, we can, at least, police each other. We will be reminded that terror is a way of life in certain parts of the world, as if through this reminder, the global playing field will finally be even. People decry humanity, disgusted with everyone, everywhere. Do talk about this, don’t talk about that, as we develop an ever evolving code shaped by arbitrary measures of gravity and fitness, as if through proper comportment we might atone for the sins others have committed or, as if through proper comportment, we can begin to set things right again, we can find the right way to proceed through our shock, our grief, our fear.
We just want to find that right way.
Or perhaps, when people are telling others what to do during these collective gasps of horror and disbelief, what we ultimately seek is the illusion of control in circumstances that are desperately beyond control.
When I was in high school, I attended boarding school in a small town in New Hampshire. The nearest big city was Boston and there were regular weekend trips to the city, via a chartered Peter Pan bus. Boston was a place for the handful of black girls to get their hair done. It was a place to shop and flirt with boys and get in trouble and then it wasn’t.
On October 23, 1989, Charles and Carol Stuart were driving home from birthing classes when Charles claimed they were carjacked by a black man who shot Carol, heavily pregnant, in the head, and Charles in the stomach.
I had just started my sophomore year in high school and the news coverage was constant—so much anger and paranoia and speculation about a horrible tragedy that had befallen good people.
Carol Stuart’s baby was delivered via C-section but the infant died a little more than two weeks later. In the days and weeks following this alleged crime, the Boston Police Department conducted an unprecedented “stop and frisk” program throughout Boston, indiscriminately stopping black men because Charles Stuart claimed he and his wife had been shot by a black man.
It was, from what I remember, a nightmarish time in Boston for black men, I mean, more than it usually was. Black men could be and were stopped for any reason or no reason at all. Racial tensions in Boston, which had long been troubled, grew increasingly fraught. Stuart new exactly what he was doing when he accused a black man. In South Carolina in 1994, Susan Smith knew exactly what she was doing when she said she was carjacked by a black man with her children still in the car when she, in fact, had murdered her children. Every time a black man is the convenient scapegoat for a crime he did not commit, the accuser knows exactly what he or she is doing.
There were many holes in Charles Stuart’s story but he was given the benefit of the doubt for quite some time. Stuart went so far as to identify a black man, Willie Bennett, as the assailant. When people lie about such things, they’re only telling their audience what they want to hear.
Eventually, in Boston, the truth came out because Stuart’s brother came forward and admitted that Charles had concocted the plot as part of an insurance scam. Before he could face justice, Stuart committed suicide. For the black men of Boston, the damage had already been done. That damage could not be undone.
During CNN’s coverage on Monday, Anderson Cooper noted that a BOLO (a police term for “be on the look out”) had been issued for a “person of interest,” this vague new term that allows us to forget about civil liberties as law enforcement officials try to ferret out criminals.
This time, the BOLO was issued for someone dark-skinned, maybe a black man, maybe with a foreign accent, wearing a black backpack and black hoodie. The description was damning, vague, and eerily reminiscent of too much. The description was broadcast, over and over, to millions, many people on edge, worried, newly suspicious, now armed with an overly broad racial profile of someone onto whom they could focus their new suspicions, confusion, and fear.
In major cities across the country, because this kind of suspicion spreads like cancer, men who fit this vague profile are going to pause before they leave their homes or walk down certain streets while the rest of us are blithely exempt.
There are many kinds of terror in this world.
I heard the news of the explosions at the Boston Marathon and still had two classes to teach. There was, at nearly the same time, news of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winners. I sat with my students in the first of my two remaining classes, and they had no idea what happened in Boston. For an hour or so I could pretend I had imagined it all. And then I had an hour break, just enough time to see too much online. I called my parents and spoke to them about nothing important but still the call was important. I heard a charming story about my baby niece saying “bye bye” to my parents’ suitcases as they left Port au Prince for the week. Children are a refreshing reminder of how life goes on.
And then there was another class, the students still largely unaware of what had taken place in Boston. They were focused on final projects, their lives shuffling toward the end of the semester and for many, graduation and an unknown future. Life always goes on. No matter what happens, this, too, is a constant.
After work, I went home and was so tired I took the elevator. As the doors hissed shut, I didn’t push the button to go to the next floor. I found myself kicking the wall over and over, muttering profanities under my breath—very uncharacteristic of me. I’m more of an emotional hoarder, swallowing everything I might be feeling. Eventually, I thought, “Well, this is crazy.” I pushed the button.
I was still in stunned silence when I stepped into my apartment, but then there was too much of that silence, too much openness and shapelessness. I turned to words because in the wake of something terrible, my gratitude for reading and writing only amplifies, sharpens. Yesterday, today, for some time to come, I am many things. Mostly, I am grateful.
Second image © Reuters.