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Nicholas Burns

After the Boston Marathon attacks: What we’ve learned

The terrorist attacks in Boston this week — the first in its long history — sent shock waves through our community. Their visual and visceral impact will stay with us for years to come. Amid the shock, grief and anger, what can we learn? There are immediate lessons for Bostonians but also for the country at large and our many allies overseas.

One of the most profound lessons was learned right here at home — planning, training and attentiveness can help to mitigate even the worst disasters. The incredible heroism and professionalism of the first responders on Boylston Street — Boston Police, Fire and EMT — saved countless lives. And had it not been for the extraordinary doctors and nurses at our peerless hospitals close by, the number of dead and severely wounded would have surely been much higher. We learned from Oklahoma City and 9/11. Our emergency and medical professionals trained patiently and methodically for the worst that can happen and it made a huge difference on Monday.

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We can also find a surprising and heartening revelation in the wake of this attack. Our government can deliver at a time of crisis and our leaders can lead. From Governor Patrick’s calm decisiveness amid a raging storm to Police Commissioner Ed Davis’ work with the FBI, we saw clear, resolute and effective leadership that made a big impact on the rest of the country and a watching world. After so many years of casual, careless and gratuitous denigration of government by too many of our national leaders, this was a very welcome revelation for thousands of citizens. But, it is not a surprise. Some of our most effective public leaders are those who exercise executive power. Our mayors and governors, especially, have been tested by hurricanes and winter emergencies to make big and quick decisions with the welfare of the entire community in mind. We saw that kind of leadership from the city and state this week.

There are important national lessons, as well, regardless of whether the attackers turn out to be Americans or foreigners. This was the first successful attack on American soil since 9/11. We have prevented others as we learn how to protect ourselves from terrorists with evil in their hearts. We’ve hardened our defences, adapted to identify threats earlier, and even managed to go on the offensive as the Obama team did so brilliantly in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. We saw this week how much stronger we must become as terrorists pierced the thick wall of our defenses with tragic consequences. But, we are now able to take the fight to them. The Boston bombing terrorists will be hunted down as President Obama vowed Thursday. The one thing we know about the record of modern terrorists is they cannot defeat a democratic society.

And, there is a clear global lesson from Boston that might provide some small measure of comfort to a grieving community. We are not alone. The world rallied to us in sympathy and solidarity this week as we had rallied to the people of Bali, Madrid, London and Mumbai in years past. People from all over the globe texted, emailed and tweeted their strong and vocal support to Bostonians as did world leaders near and far. The most poignant of these messages came from those — particularly Iraqis and Afghans — who have experienced terrorism on a scale far beyond anything we have known. Terrorists have accomplished exactly one thing — they have united the civilized world against them.

A final lesson can be found here in the unique Commonwealth we have built over nearly four centuries. In Massachusetts, we do not live as isolated, atomized people committed only to our own individual freedom and lives. The very nature of the Commonwealth links our individual fates in a society that cares for the community as a whole. Bostonians personified such unity this week.

An indelible image of this sad and tragic week is the remarkable depth, grit and resilience of Boston and its people. True to our nineteenth century moniker, we are indeed an Athens in America reflected in the countless acts of bravery, kindness and compassion on Patriots Day. As the President quoted scripture in Boston Thursday, “run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

Nicholas Burns is a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He writes regularly for The Boston Globe. He wrote this column for Global Post.
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