I was sitting in my living room when I heard the blast. There was a deep jolt and the house shook. I felt a shock of fear, but my housemates knew immediately what it was, and where. The word "bomb" was not part of my vernacular, not yet, but I knew instinctively they were right. Not many months later, a much larger device was detonated as I was walking down the street on a beautiful, early spring day. The air around me shivered, and my friend and I stopped short. We looked behind us, saw nothing, exchanged a look, then swiftly made our way to the office. This time, we knew what it was, and that it was much more powerful than the one next door.
I was 23-years-old and living in Belfast. I had found my way there via London, where I had been writing about Northern Ireland. On my first research trip I was inexplicably drawn to the city. Stepping off the bus near Belfast harbor, I took in the rise of the gray-green hills, smelled the damp, rain-soaked air, the lingering coal smoke, and for some odd, unaccountable reason, I felt like I had come home. I returned to London and within a month had abandoned my Islington flat for a home on the notorious Falls Road.
Every day, armored cars patrolled my street. Helmeted and camouflaged military personnel scanned passersby from the turrets of tanks. I ate Saturday morning breakfast in a chip shop, watching a soldier lean against a doorway and casually aim his submachine gun into the morning shoppers. Eventually, I saw the scars on the knees of a co-worker and walked the no-man's land between the Falls and Shankhill roads, tamping down jittery fear. I rode on the prison van with the wives and children of men who had perpetrated terrible, violent crimes, though I would never know the details.
That year, I researched and wrote a comprehensive reference manual on peace and community groups in Northern Ireland. I interviewed Catholics and Protestants, Loyalists and Republicans; ex-paramilitary and clergy on both sides of the conflict. I spoke with people integrating schools and prison vans; I spoke with Northern Ireland's only civil rights groups, a Nobel prize winner, and community center workers. One thing I didn't do was meet a single person not directly affected by violence.
During that time, I was also working with the youth wing of a well-known cross-cultural peace and reconciliation group. In practical terms, this meant I hung out with a couple dozen Catholic and Protestant kids. A good number of them had never met a person outside of their faith tradition. Some were venturing out of their segregated schools and neighborhoods for the first time. For them, we held meetings, provided resources and organized soccer matches. Over the summer, we took them out of the country, so that they could experience life across sectarian lines in a neutral place. These teenagers had lost friends, relatives and family members. All of them had grown up with the fact of sudden, catastrophic, pervasive violence. They knew prejudice and fear, and it affected them in immediate ways. And yet, in other ways, they lived pretty normal lives. One of my friends, a Northern Irish youth worker, had traveled to Berlin, where he had a chance meeting with a teen from Beirut. The Lebanese kid said to the Northern Irish kid: "Belfast! I'd never live there. You're always killing each other."
Years later, my friend was still laughing.
So, when the news broke about the bombings at the Boston Marathon, I felt horror, then grief, then, finally, recognition. I didn't think of 9/11, or Newtown. I thought of Belfast. I remembered when car bombings were regular events. I remembered what it was like to live knowing that there could be violence anytime, anywhere. I remembered what it felt like to know that there could be danger in a busy public square, a civil government meeting, a cemetery, a taxi cab, any crowded event. I remembered viscerally not what the bombs felt like, but what living with the threat of terror was.
At the same time, I remembered that even in those difficult, violent years, Belfast was vital. You could go to school, raise a family, go out to the pub, take a bus to the center of town, work for peace, teach children, go to a soccer match, grab lunch on a park bench, write a story, work for a newspaper, take the train to Dublin, drive out to the rugged Antrim coast, attend a dance, learn Irish, paint, walk through a forest of blossoming bluebells, hike the rise of the hills over Belfast Castle, read, talk, laugh. Everyone I knew in Belfast had lived through enormous pain. Everyone I knew understood the burden of history and the betrayal of politics. They faced chronic social, economic and educational barriers. But also, they got on with their lives. They were not paralyzed by sentiment, or denial, or fear. They didn't keep their children under house guard. As far as I could see, they held those opposing forces in mind -- life, death -- and they lived in the world.
Because of Belfast, I told my two children, aged 10 and 8, about the Boston bombings. We were in the car, on the way home from school, and I told them as gently, as directly, and with a few, necessary facts, just as I had told them gently, directly, and with as few facts as possible about the Newtown murders and the attacks on September 11. I shield them from the television during violent news cycles, but I never shield them from the news of their world as it is.
Raising my children to be safe and secure in their world includes many things, like how to cross the streets, how to protect their bodies from strangers, how to use digital media responsibly. It also means educating them about the world's realities, one of which is violence. I don't want them to be afraid. I do want them to be aware.
For me, the lasting lesson of Belfast was this: We are not exceptional. Before Belfast, I had believed, like most Americans, that war and terror couldn't happen here. After, I couldn't shake the feeling that America had been lucky for a very long time. Geography might have protected us, but we were not more special, nor more deserving. We are not exempt from violence -- not now, not before Newton, not even before September 11. We have never been exempt from violence -- just ask anyone trying to raise a family in a community plagued by gun violence. But with my first loss of innocence, decades ago, came a rush of empathy that has endured. War and terror happen to people just like me all the time, even in civilized, Western cultures. Belfast taught me not to look away, especially not now, and especially not with my children.
Looking back, I can only imagine what my parents must have been thinking. In those days, before technologies shrank the world, they didn't really know what country I was in on any given day, much less which city or what was happening in that city. We wrote letters and made monthly phone calls, but there was no such thing as direct messaging or a Twitter feed. They let me go without protest to a world which must have seemed much, much less safe than the one I left behind. I used to say I don't know how they managed, but now I think I do because I am going to let my kids go, too. Even after Boston. I'm going to let my daughter have her freedom in the farmer's market. I'm not going to keep my children from the major league baseball games they love, though now we have to pass through a security wand. We're not going to avoid the subway or Times Square when we visit New York this month. I refuse to let fear determine my children's lives and liberties, and I am determined to raise them to feel empathy for others and pride in their country, but never, ever exceptional.
And when the world is dark and violent, I am going to try very hard not to rely on platitudes to explain the difficult things. As they get older, it's not enough to say to them, "look for the helpers." They need to learn to be the helper. Above all, we won't look away, we won't ignore, we won't simply stream sentiment on social media and say there are no words. There are always some words. The world may be a fallen place, but there is always work to be done.