Last April, New York Times columnist Dennis Lehane wrote a column after the Marathon bombings, questioning the sentiment that the terrorists, “had messed with the wrong city.” Lehane resolved that while on its face, the remark was probably true, it remained unlikely that the city would respond much at all. Boston was a city set in its ways, stubborn in the face of change, unlikely to surrender its traditions out of fear and unready to reflect on them either.
I was reminded of Lehane’s remarks in October when Marc Fucarile, a survivor of the April bombings who had lost a leg in the tragedy, called to question the usage of One Fund donations, and more broadly, the commercial employment of the “Boston Strong” motto. Fucarile was part of a panel at the Boston Book Festival, addressing the media’s coverage of the Marathon. While all others on the panel praised the work of journalists on the front lines, Fucarile questioned their response to the tragedy, candidly asking a panelist from the Boston Globe what the organization planned to do with the proceeds of its Marathon publications. The other panelist was visibly taken aback, measuring his words carefully as he nonspecifically explained that the victims of the tragedy would certainly get a percentage.
There comes a point of asking, just what percentage do we owe, and can that percentage ever be enough?
A little over a year ago, I wrote a column titled “The Language of Healing,” discussing the role that language plays in response to tragedy. “Language can’t disarm a bomb,” I wrote. “It can’t dress a wound. It can’t bury the dead. At best, it erects a monument of words, and searches for the lessons written in our scars-but language can’t disarm a bomb.” Today, I’m not sure if I ever lived up to anything in that column. As Lehane suggested, maybe we haven’t changed all that much.
Imagining members of the American media as entirely villainous perhaps goes to far-at worst, we assume it to be biased-and yet, it’s unclear to me what praise can be given to publications that mix altruism with money motives. In part, it’s the curse of capitalism. When everything is incentivized, intentions become percentages. Positive action is underscored by guilt, and in some circumstances, it feels more sincere to do nothing at all than give yourself partway. Capitalism cushions tragedy with indifference, and allows us to confine moral obligation to the purchase of a t-shirt, the printing of a book, even the writing of a column.
The language surrounding tragedy, in time, inevitably transforms into a discussion of ourselves. “Boston Strong,” initially a statement on the victims and first responders, has been expanded into the popular lexicon as a way of discussing the everyday: sports teams, elected officials, publications, the initiative of university students. Words once reserved for a courageous few have been decentralized to apply to the great many.
All these criticism seem to direct us toward a more simple alternative-be unchanged, at least externally. Suppose the tragedy to speak more truly through silence than calculated word, and extend praise to the select few deserving of it. Give quietly to charity, and certainly don’t asked to be honored for that giving. Isolate talk of the incident to the textbooks, so the details are not profaned.
The more principled we imagine the approach, the more analogous it becomes to ignoring the day entirely. In many respects, the most selfless way to address a tragedy you were not directly a part of is to not react to that tragedy all. In theory, it would be the most clean ethic, but in practice, it would mean little to anyone.
Internalizing the language of tragedy, allowing the memory of it to mix with our own selfish motives, will surely lead to contradictions and hypocrisy. Having seen the city’s response Monday, however, I am convinced we must walk that road anyway. As Lehane suggested, the city was never destined to change all too much. To open ourselves to a rhetoric that suggests tragedy made us stronger is to reject the very real threat it has of making us weak. Boston is a headstrong city, and while it certainly is caught in its traditions, the city’s stubborn pride is also what keeps it from indifference.