On Monday, Patriots’ Day, the day that commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord that launched the American revolution, two explosions tore through the crowd at the finish line of the Boston Marathon just a few miles east of those famous battlefields. Runners and their families were maimed by shrapnel, children lost limbs and one of the city’s signature events was forever changed.
Monday was an important day for Israelis, too. It was Remembrance Day, the day we commemorate our terror victims and war dead.
For me, an Israeli temporarily living in the United States, the Israeli calendar briefly framed this moment of American pain, and brought into stark contrast how the two nations deal with the jarring anguish of terrorism.
“Who did it?” The question loomed over the wall-to-wall reporting, the social media conversation, the utterances of American leaders.
“We still do not know who did this or why,” President Barack Obama said in a national address from the White House some three hours after the bombing. “People shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts,” he added, and vowed, “We will find out who did this; we’ll find out why they did this. Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice.”
It was a message that conveyed both Obama’s legendary reserve and his anxious need to deliver a coherent message despite the lack of meaningful information that could put the attack in context. But instead of clearing the confusion, the White House only highlighted it. As CNN and others pointed out Monday evening, Obama’s message failed to mention the word “terror.”
The White House quickly regrouped from this error, and on Tuesday, changed course. “Given what we now know about what took place, the FBI is investigating it as an act of terrorism,” Obama said in a White House briefing. “Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians it is an act of terror. What we don’t yet know, however, is who carried out this attack or why; whether it was planned and executed by a terrorist organization, foreign or domestic; or was it the act of a malevolent individual.”
Israelis, of course, would not have made that mistake, not even by accident. The details of the bombing — an initial explosion that attracts concerned bystanders, followed by a second explosion seemingly timed to strike the crowds rushing to help — are completely familiar to Israelis.
Israelis enjoy a similar advantage when it comes to both the “who” and the “why” that the Americans are now scrambling to discover. Israel’s horizon is smaller. When a terror attack strikes an Israeli city, there is no doubt, broadly speaking, who perpetrated the attack, and why. There is context to the violence, a narrative that frames the attack within the larger national experience. It is easier to be resilient when you understand the cause behind your suffering.
But America is bigger, and targeted by a wider range of potential threats, from homegrown white supremacists and anti-government militias to Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and other terror groups from the Muslim world, and even vast crime networks sustained by the drug trade.
In that haze of uncertainty, the bombing served as a Rorschach test for American anxieties.
Thus when the conservative New York Post reported early on that “Investigators have a suspect — a Saudi Arabian national,” the report generated a firestorm of anger and condemnation online.
When the basic facts were confirmed by other news sources —that a 20-year-old Saudi national was indeed being questioned by law enforcement — news outlets stressed that the young man was not actually under arrest and was not at this time a suspect.
“He was seen fleeing the scene,” explained one news outlet. “But to put that in context, a lot of people were running away from the site of the explosions.”
The widespread suspicion that the bombing was perpetrated by a Muslim group was felt in the Muslim world, too, at times with equal anxiety.
“Please don’t be a ‘Muslim,’ one Libyan woman posted on Twitter, and saw her tweet shared hundreds of times by fellow Muslims.
Some news outlets also noted several anniversaries this week that are rife with meaning for homegrown white supremacists or anti-government militias.
Besides Patriots’ Day, there was Tax Day, the deadline for filing income tax returns on April 15, traditionally a focus of anti-government agitation. April 19 is the 18-year anniversary of the 1995 bombing of a federal government building in Oklahoma City by a member of an extremist militia. And April 20 is the birthday of Adolf Hitler and the 14th anniversary of the Columbine school massacre in Colorado.
To be sure, answers will come sooner or later. The bombs will be reconstructed, deciphered, the information fed into the stream of human and other intelligence sources already being marshaled. But that will come later.
For now, the grim images from Boston continue to reverberate like a shockwave through the American psyche and news cycle. Most news outlets noted that the marathon’s final mile, the 26th, was dedicated to the 26 children and school faculty gunned down in Newtown, Conn., in December.
Dr. Alasdair Conn, head of emergency services for the largest hospital in Massachusetts, Boston’s Massachusetts General, said he had never seen such carnage in Boston.
The explosions were “like a bomb explosion we hear about in Baghdad or Israel or other tragic points in the world,” he told reporters. Not in Boston.