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Will We Learn Anything From the Boston Bombings?

Will Travers Apr 30

I grew up in Massachusetts — mere minutes away from where the Boston Marathon starts, depending on how fast you drive. Although I live in New York now, my parents are still there and I called my mother on the day of the Boston bombings, April 15, to see how she was. She didn't know anyone in the marathon this year, but nonetheless broke into tears on the phone.

She spoke about how this Patriots' Day had started so well — as a public holiday in the city of Boston, many people had the day off from work and many more had been watching the marathon, in person along the route or at home on TV. For some reason my mother was focusing on the weather before the bombs went off, and although she's usually not one to lack an opinion, in this case all she kept saying was, "It was such a beautiful day…"

I understand how she feels. I understand how something like this can make someone struggle for words to explain — or even process — what's happened. This is the closest anything like this has ever been to her front door.

It was also a beautiful day in another part of the world: Afghanistan's rural Uruzgan province, about a hundred miles northeast of Kandahar. The sun came up there the way it did in Boston, only about eight and a half hours earlier. Instead of a marathon, there was a wedding to be held — two people, two families, and a celebration of the two becoming one. In their lives, there couldn't have existed a more beautiful day.

U.S. Air Force planes bombed the wedding party that day, killing 30 people and injuring over a hundred. In the words of one of the village residents speaking to the BBC, "There are no Taliban or al Qaeda or Arabs here. These people were all civilians, women, and children." In the jubilation immediately following the wedding ceremony, some of the guests had apparently been firing their weapons into the air. Potentially mistaking the bullets for anti-aircraft artillery fire, the Pentagon admitted, "At least one bomb was errant. We don't know where it fell."

Why am I juxtaposing these two incidents? Is it because they happened on the same day? Well, no. In truth they didn't. The bombing of this particular wedding happened in July 2002. After the bombings in Boston an article about the wedding attack from the UK's Daily Mail began circulating on social media, with people insinuating that it had happened on the same day. The byline of that article has since been amended to prominently feature a date, but by not mentioning one earlier I misled the reader, as I myself had been momentarily misled. The truth is, yes, this actually happened; it just happened 11 years ago.

Does that make it any more palatable? Given a moment in which we feel wounded as a nation, the posting of an old story masquerading as something new has the requisite power to shock people into making the connection that needs to be made: namely, between the violence we visit upon people in foreign lands and the violence that comes back to visit us at home. Violence begets violence, as Martin Luther King began teaching in the 1950s. In an era when important news stories so often get lost amid celebrity pregnancies and partisan inanities, I found it quite refreshing to fall victim to such a minor Internet hoax. Ultimately I couldn't really be all that offended by a story that's actually newsworthy miraculously getting a second life.

In the Boston Marathon bombings, three people died and, to date, over 260 are known to have been injured — some having had limbs blown off in the attack. Initially, speculation was rife about who was responsible. Now that one Tsarnaev brother is dead and the other facing trial, we're beginning to get a picture of how the crime was committed. Just as it became clear who killed the 30 people at that wedding. And fully understanding my complicity in the actions of my government, my heart goes out to everyone who was touched by that violence, in Afghanistan no less than in Boston.

The question for us now is whether or not we'll fall into the same trap we fell into after 9/11. Will we slash civil liberties at home by making scapegoats of innocent people, simply because of their religion or where they happen to have been born? Will we continue inflicting terror abroad, perpetuating the cycle of violence in a misguided attempt to keep our own country safe? Or will we finally be smart enough to say: Okay, we get it now. Living in a place where bombs go off in public is hell. We're sorry, Kabul. We're sorry, Karachi. We're sorry, Baghdad (where 30-plus people actually were killed in cities across Iraq on the day of the Boston bombings). What's happening where you live is largely our fault, and we promise to do whatever we can to make things better. If you think it will help we'll fund reconstruction efforts, strengthen civil society, and build up the social services that can cut off local support for terrorist organizations. Whatever we do, though, we'll definitely stop bombing you, flying our drones overhead, terrorizing your people, and destabilizing your society. Not because it's wrong, though it most certainly is. And not because it undermines our own supposed goals, though it most certainly does, making our country more, not less, likely to be attacked. But because after Boston, we now have some idea of what it's like.

Will Travers heads the NYC-based band/non-profit Lokashakti, which works to promote peace and social justice through collective action. An earlier version of this article originally appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.