04/16/2013 06:26 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2013

On Boston and Cooler Heads

I grew up in the Boston area. Like many thousands of residents, the Monday holiday of Patriots Day was a time for me to enjoy early spring and celebrate the tradition and athleticism of the Boston Marathon, as a child by walking from my home to the race course, and later by cheering on friends and traversing my native city as an adult. Although I no longer live anywhere near the Marathon course, I was watching the race on TV yesterday shortly before the explosions, teaching my son about his father's innocent boyhood memories.

All of that has now gone up in shards, blown away with the limbs, windows and other damage of the downtown Boston bombings, which were meant to take away that very sense of nostalgia, optimism and celebration in favor of something darker and insecure.

Once the early local shows of unity and empathy with Bostonians evaporate, we are left across the national and global political spectra with darker, more diffuse, thoughts. And what I want to counsel is that we accept the natural tendency to have some of these thoughts, while striving to keep them from encouraging a broader collective response that will further threaten what hope remains for the spirit of renewal, progress and cosmopolitanism that the Marathon exemplified.

Here are the two most salient examples of keeping the personal non-political in the madness of this current moment:

It is natural, if we are focused on what happened, to wonder whether the person or people who set the bomb were of Middle Eastern origin. When we think about why people would do such a thing, the clear answers are (1) because they are imbalanced (like the Connecticut school shooter), (2) because they are making a radical right-wing American warped gesture against the kind of open, global vision of the U.S. that Boston on Marathon day represents, or (3) because they are trying to revamp a clash with the U.S. which an already tiny and decreasing number of Muslims, mostly in the Arab world, see as a useful or necessary means to reviving their particular and peculiar vision of their religion.

So I don't think we should feel guilty or jump on others for being concerned whether, as one of several possibilities, the Boston bombers were similar to those who planned the 9/11/01 attacks.

Where our cooler heads must prevail is avoiding stereotyping and generalizing the question of who did this to a broad mistrust of Muslims or Arabs, or, if the perpetrators do turn out to be from the Middle East, a national policy of over-reaction and vengeance. We know that sowers of mass violence are no more typical of Arab Muslims than they are of American Christians. And we have every reason to have learned, in the decade after 9/11/01 if not before, that responding to fringe group violence with state-sponsored war decreases neither death nor stability.

So bombing or conquering another Middle Eastern country, if Monday's attacker turns out to be from there, makes little more sense than bombing New York would have done after the 1995 Oklahoma City attack, because perpetrator Timothy McVeigh was from there.

In short, let's not feel too bad wondering who bombed the Boston Marathon. But let's focus on how to combat the specific structures and ideologies that supported that bomber in an effective and focused way, rather than giving in to our society lashing out in prejudicial or inflammatory directions.

Here is a second cautionary example about keeping an understandable personal reaction somewhat non-political.

It is natural, if we are globally-minded, or aware of broader patterns of violence, to observe that the Boston bombs took fewer lives than similar events carried out by groups in many other countries every week (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan), or even perpetrated by governments (e.g., the U.S. in the Middle East, Israel in Gaza). Indeed, even gun attacks in the U.S. that get less attention than the ones in Connecticut last year result in more deaths than Boston. Some people will, and it is a human impulse to, compare the human toll and outraged reactions of these attacks to others that are more devastating, yet get less attention, perhaps because they are not in a prosperous city in the world's most visible country.

So thinking of the tragic Boston bombs as a jumping off point for appreciating the level of fear and violence in many places in the world makes sense, but only up to a point. An attack like yesterday's also has its unique character. This was to strike symbolically at a signature event in a city that its natives call the Hub, a center of American history, progress, innovation and open-ness to the world.

Whatever the intended message of its architects, targeting a city at its best-known moment of public celebration elicits, and was meant in part to elicit, a unique sort of outrage and vulnerability. For a moment let those acutely aware of Americans' still relatively sheltered history from mass political violence U.S. pause and take stock of the rawness produced by this attack on a central urban event. The toll on life, though immeasurable, could have been a lot worse, and has been a lot worse elsewhere. But the deliberate effort to strike at Boston with its most well-known party clothes on provokes, and deserves, focus.

In the immediate aftermath of a public tragedy like this bombing, we want to see evidence, and there is indeed much evidence, of our better natures as humans emerging. My point is that perhaps we also need to pay some attention to our less perfect, though still normal, human reactions. Or at least enough to prevent them to fester and work their way into our collective legal and political responses, which must ultimately be carefully measured and reconstructive.