A Virtuous Response to Terror?

Boston has been my home for almost six years.  It didn’t take me long to love it.  I’m not sure if it’s the blue-collar feel to a city that prides itself in not being New York, if it’s the way Bostonians are so passionate about their hometown and hometown teams, or the patriotism that pervades every crooked cow-path, reminding those who walk its red-brick sidewalks that the American Revolution was born here, thanks to those who stood up to tyranny.  All this in spite of the fact that Boston boasts being the “Hub of the Universe.”

The truth is Bostonians take themselves very seriously.  And that’s not all.  As Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen has described, Boston only cares about three things: sports, politics and revenge.  This has become a rallying cry for Boston since the tragic events at the Boston Marathon this past Monday.  In fact, the refrain from local voices and even President Obama has become: they picked the wrong city for a terrorist attack.

I understand the sentiment behind these claims.  Let’s overcome fear.  Let’s rally together.  We shall overcome.  To show solidarity.  #BostonStrong.

But in saying this was the “wrong city,” does that imply that somewhere there’s a “right city” for such a devastating and terrifying experience?  And by priding ourselves in revenge, are we on the right path for healing and reconciliation?

Of course, I was among the thousands if not millions of people who felt relief Friday night at the news that the second bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was captured.  Alive, no less. I understand the outpouring of support, thanks, and praise for all our law enforcement officials who worked bravely and tirelessly to bring the 23-hour manhunt to an end.

But I am a bit bewildered by the jubilation and celebration that followed – including in places outside Boston.  It reminded me of the response I saw and heard (though not quite like this) the night Osama bin Laden was captured just under 2 years ago.  What should our response be to news like this?  I’m not sure there’s one right answer.

To be sure, we should be relieved the threat of terror is over.  And thankful to those responsible for removing the threat.  But we shouldn’t lose sight of the pain and suffering, injury and death that have been caused – and that so many continue to face and endure.

As awful as the last week has been, we also should not lose sight of the fact that in far too many places, horrors such as these are common, yet unpredictable experiences: roadside bombs, hijackings and kidnappings, rape and murder by gangs, militias, and other unrelenting and remorseless criminals.

As scary and senseless as this has all been, it’s not even close to what people experience on a daily basis in places all over the world, whether it’s Aleppo, Delhi, Juarez, Kabul, Rio de Janeiro, or the West Bank, to name only a few.

I appreciate the sentiments behind #BostonStrong.  But the truth is, most of us were spared the worst of these terrorist attacks.  The vast majority of the marathon’s 27,000 runners are safe.  My heart grieves for the spectators who were killed or injured last Monday.  And for the MIT Police Officer killed on Thursday night and all those whose lives were put into fearful disarray by Friday’s manhunt.  Yet the vast majority of Bostonians – natives and transplants alike – were simply cooped up for one day, abiding by the ‘shelter in place’ knowing that, more than likely, it would be more of an inconvenience than a real and imminent threat to their own personal safety.

I understand the public demonstrations are meant to help people feel equipped and empowered to overcome fear and return to a sense of normalcy – whatever that might be, and however long it might take.  But we should be careful about the rhetoric we employ to rally the city and all those affected by this past week’s events.  There  is a difference between justice and vengeance.  Between relief and celebration.  And between taking pride in resilience and taking pride in revenge.

In the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, Blessed John Paul II called on Christians to be agents of a “culture of love” and to make peace and reconciliation a priority in the days ahead.

As we wait for answers from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and try to piece together the why and how of the past week, it will be easy to demonize this 19-year-old and his older brother, Tamerlan.  For too much of our history, Christians have been quick to scapegoat.  Miroslav Volf, author of Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, reminds us that Christians have a duty to unmask these mechanisms to dehumanize and exclude.  Volf explains,

“Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of
humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one
can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without
overcoming this double exclusion — without transposing the enemy from the
sphere of the monstrous… into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from
the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness. When
one knows [as the cross demonstrates] that the torturer will not eternally
triumph over the victim, one is free to rediscover that person’s humanity and
imitate God’s love for him. And when one knows [as the cross demonstrates]
that God’s love is greater than all sin, one is free to see oneself in the light of
God’s justice and so rediscover one’s own sinfulness.”

Chanting “USA!  USA!” on Friday night strikes me as a bit strange because, unlike the capture of Osama bin Laden, this wasn’t about ending the threat from an enemy afar.  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is an American citizen.  He attended a renowned public high school in Cambridge and was one of the 250,000 Boston-area college students.  And, from reports by friends and teachers, this might’ve been the last person they expected to inflict these kinds of terrors.

In other words, the emphasis on #BostonStrong and flag-waving patriotism might be misplaced.  It doesn’t necessarily show solidarity and support to the lives lost and hundreds of others affected.  And it also doesn’t help us get to the bottom of why the Tsarnaev brothers felt, thought, and ultimately acted the way they did.  And neither does it get us closer to preventing these kinds of events from taking place again.

Of course, initial reactions like those seen and heard and replayed by the media in the last few days are not carefully constructed in advance.  The more important matter is how we respond in the days ahead.  In Boston and across the country, there will be innumerable responses to this past week’s senseless horror and to all the difficulties the victims of terror and their families and friends will now have to face.  But Christians – in all places, but especially in Boston – should lead the way forward for justice, peace, and reconciliation.  We should strive to set an example of a virtuous response to terror.  And in so doing, may we provide the comfort, healing, and solidarity that is so desperately needed today, in Boston, and so many other places around the globe.

I say all this because I love Boston and believe its rich tradition of patriotic citizens and faithful disciples demands a legacy of being devoted to more than just sports, politics, and revenge.