The carnage at the close of Monday’s Boston Marathon tripped Americans’ natural psychic reflexes: Are there any more bombs? Any more cities? And, is Uncle Pat running that race again this year?
These reactions were more thoughtful, more muted, more knowledgeable than they were 20 years ago, when this nation began its own, most recent marathon of terror assaults on U.S. soil. The tactic then: a truck bomb beneath the World Trade Center that failed to topple the north tower into the south.
Two years later, a yellow Ryder truck-turned-fertilizer bomb ripped one face off the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. And in 2001 the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington carried terrorism to a ghastly extreme.
Before those three assaults, though, many Americans had forgotten — or didn’t know — of a sorry timeline: Attacks that can reasonably be called terrorism, often involving bombs, are a treacherous staple of U.S. history. These events have slaughtered innocents, shattered families and caused enormous damage to property. Even within these last two decades, the toll has been steady, from the Unabomber’s lethal mailings to the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics to the anthrax attacks that all but paralyzed postal service.
We cite these earlier incidents not to diminish Monday’s horror but to acknowledge a growing resilience in the American people. This is not yet Israel or Britain, lands where the relative frequency and ferocity of terror attacks has hardened many citizens against fear. This is, though, a nation whose people cannot be rattled as easily as was the case in earlier decades.
Americans never will take these dreadful events with anything less than initial shock and duty-bound resolve: Who did this, and how should our leaders react? But there was more than symbolism at work Monday in the video from the first blast: more people running toward this ground zero than running away. For the most generous or other-oriented among us, that may be a natural response, but it wasn’t a necessarily rational one: None of those leaping into the smoke knew whether the explosion they had just witnessed would prove to be the only one at that site — or merely the first in a concussive cascade.
Monday, then, confronted all Americans with a sense of helplessness, but not of hopelessness. We have been here before, we will be here again. We have survived many terror assaults, and whatever comes next, we will survive that, too. We have learned these things about ourselves.
Those with twisted minds and treasured grievances never will stop doling out damage and wedging their causes into headlines. But with each incident the next perpetrators lose some fraction of their ability to leave us fractured and flummoxed.
Late Monday, as most of America glumly but resolutely went back to its business, we thought of two moments past, one here and one overseas:
c In the days after 9/11, fear tore at the American mind — often irrational frights that what had happened in New York and Washington suddenly stood a strong chance of happening in Chicago or other communities across the country.
c In the days after the deadly bombing of the London Underground in 2005, authorities and riders more experienced in homefront terror almost instantly recreated the normalcy that had governed the subway — and their lives — before those coordinated suicide attacks.
The U.S. military tries to build that sophistication into its training: An Army resilience program, developed at the University of Pennsylvania, stresses the notion of “post-traumatic growth.” In the layman’s cliche: That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Familiarity with terror is a miserable way to attain that growth. But we are here and surviving, a more resilient America.