Tuesday, April 16, 2013


The Newest Boston Massacre

 
When you’re far away and disaster strikes home, it’s hard. Which means what exactly? Which means, that when someone bombs your old haunt and kills 3 people, your grief is like some kind of insanity, because your emotions are all out of proportion to those of people around you. You’re shell shocked and fumbling around the rubble—they’re reading a newsarticle.

I don’t have much insightful to say about the Boston attacks, but I need to say something. All day long I have been zombie-walking around school and home, tears coming into my eyes whenever I stand still too long and someone talks to me. Across the ocean, watching from afar, I have been meditating on reactions to calamity. Particularly my own first reaction.

I first heard last night when an inlaw from Holland and then my nephew texted me wanting to know ‘If everyone in Boston was okay?’ But it was midnight and I figured this was another case of my family hearing about an earthquake in the Middle East and wrongly assuming I had been standing at the epicenter—something clearly had happened but most likely it was some minor little mishap in some suburb somewhere.

Then the next morning, I heard the news—the finish line of the Boston marathon bombed in two different locations. And I know both those locations well. Every year I took my students down to see the marathon—I and a stalwart group always made sure to elbow our way through the crowds to find a good view of the finish line.  The marathon was a pet project of mine—I prepared a lesson on how to rank people (second fastest, third fastest), on the history of the marathon, on vocabulary associated with races, on the first marathon in Greece and the role of Greek myth in English. It went off just up the street from the Boston Public Library on Boylston, where Delal and I stood last summer eating hotdogs and arepas, and taking pictures. The second bomb was further up Boylston, near the first school I worked at in the city.  

There was a video of the first explosion—people screaming and scattering, people tearing apart the barricades to get to those trapped inside, blood,  a woman praying.

And now I have to be honest about something ugly.

As I walked up the road to catch my bus to school, a covered lady was coming up behind me, a chubby, sour-faced woman who, every morning, without fail, brushes past me in a rush to her own service bus. I was thinking about the bombing, wondering if my friends were okay, when she bumped my arm as she breezed by.  I’m ashamed to say my first reaction was pure hatred.  ‘Enough of you people,’ I muttered at the woman’s back. Our neighborhood is conservative AKP territory, the moderately Islamic political party that brought you mass arrests of Kurdish activists, censorship of books on evolution and physics, and the persecution of numerous writers, journalists, and artists like pianist Fazıl Say, sentenced yesterday to prison for ‘insulting religion.’ And now another bombing, I thought. Enough of these right wing, closed minded, extremist Muslims. Get rid of them! And I didn’t just mean whoever I thought attacked Boston, or the woman, but everyone in my line of sight. The old man with the beanie hat hobbling in the other direction, the dimwitted convenience store owner setting up his newspapers on the sidewalk.

It was only after I boarded the bus that I calmed myself down and reasoned it out—even it were an Islamist extremist group, it was stupid to get angry at all Muslims, or even the meddling conservative ones in the government here. Every religion has extremista capable of violence. You can’t blame  a group for the actions of an individual. It might not even have been an Islamicist—hell, domestic terror was more likely. And a variety of other common sense ideas that any idiot can rattle off at the drop of a hat, all of which, in a subtle way, are racist in and of themselvers. Why should anyone need to remind themselves tha t you can’t blame a group for the actions of one? To say it suggests you already do so.

 My instinctive bigotry caught me off guard.  It was frightening to see years and years of being surrounded by other cultures, merging into them, learning about them, and a natural empathy for their differences go up in smoke and to find that all I was left with at that instant of crisis was tribal, racial rage. I wonder if the searches going on in Boston now  of several Saudi students and visitors (read the Globe) are inspired by anything similar? I hope not. I hope that the thing that drives my country forward in the next few months and God knows, years, is not the same primitive emotion that overwhelmed me this morning, that people will take the time to stop and calm down.  

On Facebook, I scanned for messages from friends. One after the other, ‘I’m okay,’ from Emily. ‘We’re safe,’ from Jessica.  ‘I’m okay,’ from Karen and Joe. A variety of well-meaning posts were up from other friends.  One shared an article pointing out that many people die in American drone attacks every day in foreign countries while the US grieves over one bombing. Another pointing out the countless civilians who died in Iraq and Afghanistan—perhaps violence begets violence? Some students and Turks suggesting its all a conspiracy to blame an Iranian and justify another invasion.  It’s the same predictable mix of reactions. Some trying to point out how misguided policies may have led to this. Some showing that others’ grief may be greater and more frequent—and again caused by us.  And, (in this country) some making the instant jump to conspiracy mentality.

To me it’s like this. Imagine if your mother were suddenly hospitalized for lung cancer. As you are out in the hallway, waiting on the results of an emergency surgery to remove the tumors, several friends arrive to comfort you. One says,

‘Well, you know, some people’s mothers die in a lot more horrible ways! You should think about that!’

Another says, ‘Well what do you expect? She did smoke alot.’

Another says, ‘I think she’s doing it on purpose to cash in on her life insurance!’

While I’m online trying to confirm the safety of people I love, the last thing I want is a lecture about politics and history—no matter how true it may be. You want someone to grieve a little with you, to help you clear the rubble, to share the sadness and shock, but that’s just not going to happen far away. You’re alone.

Right now I am picking through memories of Boston. Baseball games at Fenway—once trashtalking the Tampa Bay center fielder so effectively that I am sure he struck out the next inning. Listening to music at Wally’s jazz bar, small and cozy, a glass of gin in hand.  Dinners and green wine with Misty in some East Cambridge Portuguese restaurant. Long endless walks with Fred across the city. Street fairs in Somerville. The drunk woman dancing in the snow at the St. Patrick’s parade as everyone cheered her on. Eating Canolis at the park in the North End. Proposing to my wife at the new Evoo. Or the spring days at the marathon with the tulip trees blooming and the apple blossoms scattering on the sidewalks and those crowds and the feel of the sun on skin after a long winter and complaining about how its always the Kenyans that win. Or the hawk what used to sit on the rooftops of the Boylston Street buildings, like some guardian, our very own gargoyle keeping the evil spirits away.

Enough about me. My prayers, for what they’re worth, go out to all in Boston, and as William Styron said, ‘to all the world’s butchered and martyred.’

Here is a picture of the boy who died--with a poster wishing for peace
 

2 comments:

krisner said...

Very well said. Definitely a time to grieve, not to lecture.

jmchugh said...

Thank you Jeff. This is very beautifully written and moving. It still hurts.