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Can Boston Be the Unifying Event That Our Nation Needs?


In the days and weeks after the 9/11 tragedy, virtually every national-security and terrorism expert predicted it was only a matter of weeks or months before another major attack came. They said a terrorist event within six months was a virtual certainty; and that certainly seemed plausible to many of us at the time. As each week, month, and season passed with no attack, most people still instinctively assumed one would come and seemed surprised that year after year went by without some comparable horror. It turned out to be 11 and a half years before another major attack. The bombings on the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday were obviously not on the same scale as the 9/11 tragedy—but were horrific nevertheless.

I’ve been spending this semester on a college campus in Boston, and it was interesting to observe the faces of dozens of undergraduates and graduate students in a common room, watching in horror and disbelief as the events unfolded on a giant television screen. It made me realize that this was a new and terrible experience for the freshmen and sophomores, many of whom were only in second or third grade on Sept. 11, 2001. They have few memories of that day, not the vivid recollections of graduate students, faculty members, and other grown-ups who uniformly felt that sick feeling of déjà vu on Monday.

Of course, many senseless tragedies have occurred since 9/11, most recently the killings in Newtown, Conn. But events such as the attack on Boylston Street in Boston, and the horrors that unfolded in the skies, at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and outside Shanksville, Pa., on 9/11 are profound in their psychological impact. Suddenly, some issues that seemed so pressing and caused such wide divisions a week ago, while still real, appear in a different context.

One thing that happens when there is mass tragedy of this kind is that people come together and cooperate in a collective response. From the race’s finish line, we’ve heard reports of split-second reactions, as both first responders and impromptu ones stepped into action, filling whatever void they found in the chaos and mayhem that surrounded them. As people of every partisan, ideological, religious, regional, and socioeconomic stripe watched from their homes, jobs, or schools, their mouths open in horror, they shared a common emotion. We have once again been brought together by tragedy; for this moment, we are reunited, acting and feeling as one.

I vividly recall watching on television on the evening of 9/11 as hundreds of members of Congress, from both parties and chambers, stood on the Capitol steps, hours after they had been evacuated from the building, singing “God Bless America.” I wondered (briefly) whether some good might come from such a horrific event that had ended and devastated so many lives.

Maybe the good could have happened. I would like to think it might have happened, that the tone and behavior in Washington could have changed to some degree because of those terrible events. However, the controversy, the heated emotions over whether we should invade Iraq, served to reopen the wounds, tearing Americans, particularly those in Washington and in politics, apart from each other. Soon, relations in D.C. became as bad, and eventually even worse, than before the tragedy. The “God Bless America” moment turned out to be only a brief respite from the bitter partisan warfare that has become the norm in our nation’s capital. The vituperation returned, the national interest relegated to a subordinate role as partisans and ideologues sought every opportunity to score points on the other side, to further drive wedges to divide the country.

It’s my hope, but sadly not my expectation, that while the most committed political combatants won’t likely be deterred for long, some others on both sides of the aisle—the normally reasonable people who have come to serve as enablers for the most bitter partisans—will pause, take a breath, and take stock of our nation’s challenges. There is a terrible cost to be paid for endless bickering that comes from those who see compromise as a four-letter word. We should once again begin to build bridges rather than tear them down. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail, but every opportunity to attack people on the other side does not create the necessity to do so. It really does not have to be that way.

This article appeared in the Saturday, April 20, 2013 edition of National Journal.

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