THE BLOG
04/24/2013 04:24 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2013

America's Response to Tragedy

AP

By Michael Felsen

BOSTON, Massachusetts -- It's been a hard week for Boston. A native New Yorker, I've lived in this town for close to 40 years. My wife and I raised three boys who hawked Coke and peanuts in the grandstands at Fenway Park, and cheered on the Celtics at Boston Garden. And for many years, we stood together each April and applauded the countless runners, from countless countries, who sped toward the finish line at the magnificent Boston Marathon.

Those warm memories are tarnished now. The harrowing events of last week have left us dazed by a cluster of senseless bursts of violence. Baghdad, Oklahoma City, Mumbai, Kabul, Moscow, Columbine, London, Newtown and so many other places around the globe, have been victimised by terrorising acts of one stripe or another. Now, unhappily, Boston joins those ranks. What twisted logic could have inspired, or what hidden trauma could have impelled anyone to inflict such wanton destruction on the lives of innocents? Today, one suspect is dead and the other is hospitalised and in custody. The nagging question remains: Why?

In one sense, it really doesn't matter. Whatever the motivating force, the damage is done. The wounds are inflicted on families and communities. In every case, the acts are inexcusable. And yet, we care about "why" because we look for lessons and wonder what, if anything, we can do to prevent the next such catastrophe.

Two days after the Boston Marathon bombings, National Public Radio featured University of Arizona psychologist Jeff Greenberg, who studies how people respond to events that force them to confront their own mortality. "When death is percolating close to consciousness, people become more "us vs. them" -- they become defensive of their belief system, positive toward those they identify with and more negative to those who espouse a different belief system," he said.

That human tendency lurks here, in the wake of last week's events. We've learned that the suspects of the heinous acts of 15 April self-identified as Muslim. In response, some have already chosen to shun, and even vilify, that entire community of faith. This despite the fact that we have already heard from Muslim leaders in Boston and beyond that these acts were crimes, pure and simple, and in no way justifiable by the Islamic faith.

Among the many lessons from the week's events is this: it's our job to prevent this kind of blaming and stigmatising of an entire group on account of the unconscionable acts of a few. Wholesale demonization of the "other" simply can't be justified as serving the cause of security, justice, human understanding or, for that matter, any other value.

This message came through loud and clear at the interfaith memorial service held on 18 April in Boston's South End. More than 2,000 gathered and listened while Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders, joined by Boston's Mayor Tom Menino, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and President Barack Obama spoke words of comfort and inspiration.

We were reminded that we can't allow another's hate to make haters of us; that our task is to heal and rebuild, united by our common humanity. We were reminded that our community is defined not by violence, hatred or fear, but by love and generosity, as seen, for example, in the actions of those heroic bystanders and first responders who ran toward -- rather than away from -- danger, and aided those injured by the explosions. And we heard this resonant theme: that the dilemma of evil is that it inspires good; in our diversity, we have been united.

Patrick recalled the words of Martin Luther King: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness -- only light can do that." And Obama enjoined: "In the face of cruelty, we will choose compassion ... we'll choose friendship, we'll choose love." Can any of us doubt that an outstretched hand is more likely to promote an open mind and an open heart in the "other," than a clenched fist?

We miss the point entirely if we allow the acts of extremists to force us into our own respective corners. They win if in response to their acts we poison our community, by shunning -- instead of engaging -- those whose culture or beliefs are different from our own.

Here in Boston -- but not only here in Boston -- that's a race we need to run, and win, together.

Michael Felsen is an attorney and President of Boston Workmen's Circle, a 110-year old communal organisation dedicated to secular Jewish education, culture and social justice. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 April 2013. Copyright permission is granted for publication.