Here’s my hope for the Boston Marathon bombing: Maybe it can mark the end of the 9-11 Era. It feels so different from 9-11. Maybe it can exorcize the demons that have haunted us these last dozen years.
9-11 was a wound that refused to heal. I think that had something to do with the kind of story it was and the way we told it: It was a tragedy, and the many heroic individual stories that came out of 9-11 just served to make the larger story that much more tragic.
The greatest heroes of 9-11 all died. They were the first responders who charged up the burning towers only to be crushed in the collapse. They were the passengers of United Flight 93, who crashed their own plane rather than let it become a bomb. We could not identify with them or feel connected to their courage, because we lived. To have survived on a day when the real heroes died … it felt almost shameful.
The villains — the men who hijacked the airliners and slammed them into the Twin Towers — were likewise dead. They died on their own terms, as martyrs and victors in their own eyes, and they were beyond our reach now.
So in spite of all the people who did the best they could that day, the overwhelming emotions of 9-11 were shame, depression, anger, and fear. As a country, America came out of 9-11 looking for somebody to blame, and wanting to mess them up as badly as we could.
We could not let the story end this way, so we took it to Afghanistan and Iraq. We took it to Bagram and Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. If some of the people we killed or maimed or tortured were innocent, so be it. Collateral damage. Our people had been innocent too.
9-11 was a monstrous act that we couldn’t resolve in our hearts, so it turned us into monsters.*
But we will tell the Boston Marathon bombing story as a challenge that Americans rose to. Not years later in another country, but as it was happening. Not by dying or killing, but by living and saving lives. This time, the tragedy sets up the stories of heroism, not the other way around.
It started immediately, with the ordinary people, the runners and their friends and families, who raced into danger to help the wounded. But unlike the 9-11 first responders, they did not become martyrs or victims. They continue to walk among us like the typical Americans they are.
EMTs and police were already present at the finish line, and their performance will be a model for the rest of the world for years to come. Their story is a victory, not a tragedy. It is a tribute to them that only three people died on the scene.
Everyone who made it into an ambulance is still alive a week later, because hundreds more nurses and doctors became heroes by saving lives, not by dying or by taking lives in revenge. Like the runners and the EMTs, they did not vanish into a martyr’s Heaven, but melted back into the general population. Maybe you pass them on the highway or stand in line with them at the supermarket. Maybe you are one of them.
Our leaders expressed sorrow, promised justice, and asked for our cooperation. They got it. People sent in their photos, and studied photos taken by others. Asked to stay off the streets or keep to their homes, we did.
Police swarmed in from all over the area, and worked together under federal leadership without visible rancor. They did their jobs, protecting the public without becoming our masters. They did not create more victims by rounding up hundreds of innocents. A policeman died, a fourth victim, but no more civilians.
And they caught the bad guys. One died in a suburban shootout that miraculously killed no bystanders. The other was wounded, but managed to hide for most of the next day. He was found by a citizen who did not kill or get himself killed. He called the police, who captured the suspect alive and took him to a hospital.
That night, the convoy of police leaving Watertown became a spontaneous victory parade, and the citizens (who had been cooped up in their houses all day) streamed out onto the streets to cheer.
Unlike 9-11, it was over.
This time, like the aid-giving marathoners, like the EMTs, like the hundreds of doctors and nurses and police, at least one perpetrator will live and not become a martyr larger than life. We may get what we never had for 9-11: an explanation and a motive. We may come to look on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a troubled teen-ager, rather than a demon we see whenever we close our eyes and keep trying to kill by projecting him onto others.
Along the way, we may exorcize another demon who has haunted us too long: the Terrorist Superman, who desires nothing but mayhem and can be stopped by nothing but death. Who requires superhuman security measures and inhuman methods of interrogation. The monster who can only be fought by other monsters.
And that forms the essence of my hope: Maybe the events of this week have shown us that we don’t have to be monsters any more.
Maybe we can just be people who help other people, workers who save lives by doing our jobs, citizens who respect our authorities and get respect in return. Maybe we can seek justice without losing our human compassion. Maybe we can stand for values higher than mere survival. Maybe we can once again be part of a nation that is admired rather than just feared.
9-11 will never be forgotten, but I think it is time for it to be over. Maybe now it can join the Kennedy assassination and Pearl Harbor and the other great sorrowful events of our history. A scar, a memory, but not a wound.
So this is my post-marathon-bombing hope: That now we can stop being the frightened, angry, shamed survivors of 9-11 and go back to being Americans. It’s been a long time.
* In an earlier version of this article that I posted on Daily Kos, some commenters were inclined to absolve everyday Americans and put the blame on President Bush. I’m not going to make excuses for Bush, but he didn’t create the widespread post-9-11 desire for violence, he just channeled it. By the time the Iraq invasion rolled around, I and many other people were opposed. But I definitely felt the fear and anger it was based on.