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Disaster brings us together — but for how long?

A makeshift memorial for victims near the site of the Boston Marathon bombings.
A makeshift memorial for victims near the site of the Boston Marathon bombings.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

As was said often over the past week — perhaps most forcefully by the gathered politicians and religious leaders at Thursday’s interfaith service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross — the Boston Marathon bombers lost. They lost the instant their devices were detonated. Whatever their specific beliefs and grievances, their mistake was that they thought fear would divide us and make us smaller. Instead it pulled us together and made us bigger, as individuals and a city. The explosions and manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers that bookended the week jolted us out of the daily complacency that separates us and with blunt traumatic force reminded us of the fragile humanity we have in common.

The work now becomes sustaining that commonality. It seems easy but in practice can turn out to be absurdly difficult. Our society is crisscrossed by fault lines of class, race, political conviction, religious belief. We judge one another based on generation and gender, by the clothes we wear and the tweets we follow. The only positive thing that can be said about disaster, whether man-made or natural, is that it obliterates all that and leaves us blinking in a renewed appreciation for the reality that binds us together. And then that appreciation fades. Sooner or later, it always fades.


Sometimes we barely know what to do with it in the first place. The night of the bombings, an acquaintance of mine had already volunteered to run a community dance in our town, an event that attracted an older, educated, crunchy crowd. Yet everyone was on edge, she said later. Arguments broke out, disagreements turned to tears. People showed up in desperate need of human comfort and ended up fighting about the rules. “My sad bumped up against her sad,” my friend said about one contretemps.

Well, of course it did. Something so enormous had just happened that we didn’t have words for it; we just needed the company. And real, in-person human company is rarely simple when you’re hurting. Making one’s feelings known in a Facebook post — that’s safe enough, and you can always feel a rosy sense of togetherness as you count up the “likes” you’ve received. But genuine connection requires actual presence, and it’s there that our vulnerabilities show up. Our sads, as my friend said.


Yet our strengths show up as well. Speaking personally, I’ve been through this twice now, in different ways and in no sense experiencing anything close to what the actual victims have. (I’ve been lucky. Remember that: By far the majority of us have been lucky.) I was living in Brooklyn when the Twin Towers fell and saw how cataclysm could weld an entire city into one wounded soul. The simple sorrowful decency shown by New Yorkers of every class and caste to one another was necessary, but it was also revolutionary — a triumph of empathy forced by unimaginable pain. And it lasted a good long while, longer even than the smell of burnt electrical wiring that hung over Lower Manhattan and took weeks to dissipate.

On Marathon Monday this year, my family and I were out of town on vacation. We heard the news of the bombing in texts and a phone call as we climbed a remote canyon trail north of Santa Fe. A moment of modern surrealism: We were lost amid vast beauties of nature yet found by bad news from home. In the days that followed, when the locals would ask where we were from and we’d say “Boston,” the tenor of the conversation would instantly change. Instead of superficial chitchat about the Sox, we were suddenly discussing the rock-bottom stuff: fear and anger and how to keep sane in an insane world. A hotel desk clerk held my hand and told me how moved she was by the response of the people running toward the wounded, and by that she meant all of Boston and everyone in it.


It’s human nature to try to soothe away another person’s ache; if it doesn’t make them feel better, at least it makes you feel better. And it’s true that the farther one is from the epicenter of tragedy, the easier it is to slide back into the day-to-day. Watching the aftermath of the Boston bombings from 2,225 miles away was to risk seeing it as the rest of the world saw it: an awfulness subsumed by the next awfulness after that. We came home to images of a factory explosion in Texas, the news from Boston sliding to the crawl at the bottom of the CNN broadcast. The culture rushes on, eager to package, eager to forget.

But, then, of course, we were back for the final act, 24 hours in which an entire city held its collective breath and seemed to will a safe ending for the thousands of police officers and agents, for Boston itself. It was reality TV augmented by police scanner feeds and the constant din of Twitter, a complicated matrix of watching and partaking. And then, with the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Boston erupted into jubilation, relief, triumph, and simple release from a week of unbearable tension. We were one.


And now it’s next Monday, so who are we? Is it back to business as usual, back to the Balkanized Boston where clans and castes chafe against each other? Last Thursday, Cardinal Sean O’Malley told listeners in the cathedral that through shared trauma “we become a stronger people, a more courageous people, a more noble people.” He’s right. The losses and melodrama of the past week have created a Boston Common that extends out to the rest of the country and beyond and embraces all the disparate, different individuals in it.

It’s in the violence of a terrible event that we find our best selves, in large part by finding each other and recognizing that what we have in common is infinitely more powerful than what divides us. Ask yourself, then: Why do we need the terrible event to feel connected, to other people and to life itself? And how long will we keep it going this time?

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr
. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.