As I type this, thousands of police officers and millions of citizens in Boston, Cambridge, and Watertown, Massachusetts, are on high alert, as authorities hone in on the second suspect in Monday’s horrible bombing. I hope by the time you read this article or soon after, justice will have the upper hand, and that the people of Boston will finally have some relief.
In West, Texas, a town still smolders after a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant claimed multiple precious lives, including of brave first responders who rushed in to help.
And here in Washington, D.C., we are a city on edge, with ricin-laced letters in our mailboxes, covering even the simplest tasks—riding the subway, going into work—with a thin layer of anxiety.
Fear is at our national doorstep. We’re huddled inside as it knocks. The question becomes, how will we respond? No one knows for sure, but we would do well to look to history for a few instructions.
The Second Intifada raged in Israel for over four years, claiming thousands of Israeli and Palestinian lives, including many civilians. Bombs exploded in restaurants in Jerusalem, and teenagers were shot in Ramallah. An entire region balanced on the edge of a knife.
But the Israelis in particular had a secret for dealing with fear: they leaned on each other. The society drew in more closely, remembered what had made them strong in the past, and fortified themselves, together. As Prof. Zahava Solomon of Tel Aviv University explained to The Times of Israel, “In Israel, our holidays and traditions act as reminder of our history of war and persecution. This creates a paradox in society—on one hand, we don’t feel very safe, but on the other, it inoculates us to bad events when they do occur.”
In fact, scientists have measured this Israeli resilience. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that while Israelis suffered from posttraumatic stress during the Second Intifada, their rates of distress were much lower than would be expected, and lower than societies facing similar challenges, including Americans after 9/11. In the heat of battle, their sense of community quite literally became a part of them, making them strong.
We saw a similar response after another horrific bombing in America. Before church one Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, four members of the Ku Klux Klan—Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Herman Frank Cash, and Robert Chambliss—snuck onto the grounds of 16th Street Baptist Church and concealed a box of dynamite under its steps. At 10:22 a.m., 26 children were walking up those steps when the box exploded. Four beautiful little girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—perished in an instant, and 22 others were wounded severely.
The black community in Birmingham, and across the country, was inflamed. There was understandable talk of riots and retribution, and finger-pointing at any white face they saw.
Three days later, Martin Luther King Jr. came to 16th Street Baptist Church to deliver the eulogy. In the process, he offered a roadmap for how the community should process its anger and fear:
“I stand here to say this afternoon, to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality ...
“Life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace. And so today, you do not walk alone.”
King reminded the angry crowd in that church, and African-Americans around the country, that they did not walk alone. They were on a just and righteous journey, toward greater freedom in the South and in the wider world. And even in the face of four murdered children, if they could avoid despair, retaliation, and bitterness and close in together, they would eventually emerge victorious.
And finally, we can learn a few lessons from our commander in chief. Yesterday President Obama took to the pulpit at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston and quoted from the Book of Hebrews to prescribe his own response to fear:
“That’s what you’ve taught us, Boston. That’s what you’ve reminded us—to push on. To persevere. To not grow weary. To not get faint. Even when it hurts. Even when our heart aches. We summon the strength that maybe we didn’t even know we had, and we carry on. We finish the race. We finish the race…
“And that’s what the perpetrators of such senseless violence—these small, stunted individuals who would destroy instead of build, and think somehow that makes them important—that’s what they don’t understand. Our faith in each other, our love for each other, our love for country, our common creed that cuts across whatever superficial differences there may be—that is our power. That’s our strength.
“That’s why a bomb can’t beat us. That’s why we don’t hunker down. That’s why we don’t cower in fear. We carry on. We race. We strive. We build, and we work, and we love—and we raise our kids to do the same. And we come together to celebrate life, and to walk our cities, and to cheer for our teams ...
“Tomorrow, the sun will rise over Boston. Tomorrow, the sun will rise over this country that we love. This special place. This state of grace.”
The president preached the best of the American spirit: what we start, we finish, and we do so together. We always finish the race.
There are diverse causes for the Boston bombing; for West, Texas; for the other disasters we have faced. We will hunt down suspects and evidence, theories and ideas, hopefully reaching some conclusions and bringing some measure of justice and closure to the families of the lost.
But at the end of the day, we will still have unanswered questions, unresolved emotions. And we still have this problem of fear.
In response, we have a decision to make as Americans. Perhaps we’ll take the route of a resilient Israel, a compassionate King, or the advice of our own president and band together in the face of these challenges, embracing our common ideals, knowing that even more tough times will come, but we can get through them, together. It seems to have worked well in the past, for those facing their own existential fears.
We could also of course take to Twitter, the floor of the House and Senate, and the evening news and express our fear through attacks on our countrymen. We can levy charges against Democrats or Republicans; Muslims or immigrants; anyone who is different from us.
We live in a free country, and our liberty allows for us to make that choice. But if history is any guide, one path leads to true and lasting freedom—and the other, straight back to fear.