After the Bombing

Paul Theroux: The Day Boston Felt the World’s Pain

When the travel writer returned to his hometown after the Marathon bombing, he found the mood of the city transformed, unified by a trauma, which he has seen elsewhere in the world.

For several decades, starting in the early 1970s, I traveled regularly from London, where I lived as a resident alien, to Boston, where I grew up, and each time it was like a tumble through the Looking Glass. Boston was so mild, so confident, still the joyous and even innocent city of my youth. The noteworthy Boston tragedies, vividly recalled by my father—the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 (21 killed), the Cocoanut Grove nightclub inferno of 1942 (492 killed)—were over, and such infernalities seemed unrepeatable.

Arriving in Boston was like landing upon the bosom of serenity from the derangement of a war zone. Britain at that time was in the grip of a bombing campaign by well-funded and feuding nationalists in Ulster, who were driven by spite, folklorism, and religious bigotry and were tribalistic in their antique grudges, absurd in their speechifying.

London was weary and anxious, and by the mid-1970s there had been a number of bomb outrages: the Old Bailey bomb of 1973 (1 death, 200 injured, shattered buildings), the Guildford bombing of 1974 (5 killed, 65 wounded), the pub bombings in Birmingham (21 killed, 182 injured), the Regent’s Park nail bomb of 1982 (the deaths of 7 musicians playing selections from Oliver! and many injuries), the Chelsea Barracks cluster bomb on the same day (11 deaths, many dismemberments, seven dead horses), the bombing at Harrods department store at Christmas 1983 (six people killed); and 5 people dead and many injured in an attempt on Margaret Thatcher in Brighton in 1984.

The astonishing fact is that these unspeakable events in England were not as hideous as the everyday horrors in Ulster. Belfast was full of no-go areas and bomb craters throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and the mildest country town was not spared. In August 1979, Lord Mountbatten and two youths were blown up on his yacht—and the IRA took credit and crowed over it. I traveled to Ulster in the ’80s and found it a province of roadblocks and abject fear. A few years after I passed through the lovely town of Enniskillen, where as wreaths were being laid on the town’s cenotaph on Remembrance Day in 1987, a 40-pound bomb was detonated in the market square, killing 11 people and maiming and injuring 63. As late as 1998, a wicked bombing in Omagh caused 29 deaths, with 220 injured. Militant protestant paramilitary groups planted bombs and schemed in murders, but the explosions I mention were admitted to be the work of, or attributed to, the IRA, the Provos, or splinter groups, like the one in Omagh, which called itself the Real IRA.

Boston seemed innocent of the terror, or else conniving in it, making a conscious political statement, to the extent that one of the notable features on Boston roads were the bumper stickers supporting the IRA. It is well documented that a portion of the money collected in the U.S. by Noraid (the Irish Northern Aid Committee) was used to support the IRA bombing campaigns, and in another grotesque irony, some of the money used to buy weapons from the U.S. came from Libyan bagmen sent by Muammar Gaddafi, as one of the colonel’s many hobbies was the propagation of mayhem.

Except for such efforts as the Boston College oral-history project documenting the Irish Troubles, this history of violence has been little discussed in recent years or else strenuously justified as legitimate by, among many others, the longtime IRA supporter and unapologetic congressman Peter King, a Republican from New York.

After the two bombs on the day of the Boston Marathon, it seemed from the howls of pain, the cries for vengeance, the massing of troops and police, with tanks and helicopters, and the city’s paralysis, that Boston had lost its innocence. Such a bomb outrage had never happened in the city. But with severed limbs and three corpses outside the Boston Public Library and pools of blood on one of its oldest and happiest streets, the mood of the city was transformed—besieged, panicked, and ultimately unified—suffering in its trauma, in a way I have seen elsewhere in the world, yet painful to see in a city I love.

The Looking Glass effect is routine for many travelers returning from a distant place. Not long ago I came back to Boston from Angola, which is still plagued by land mines that were scattered all over the country in its 27 years of civil war. It is estimated that 20 million land mines were planted in Angola by all sides in the long conflict.

Over a recent 10-year period, 2,000 land mines were found on the route of the Benguela railway and removed by a British charity called the HALO Trust (in all, 68,000 mines in Angola have been cleared by this gallant organization). One effect of the decades of the Angolan civil war, which ended only in 1992, was that the animals that had not been eaten by starving people were blown up by land mines. Cows in pastures are still shredded by the explosions now and then of forgotten land mines, and so are children playing and people taking shortcuts through fields.

These were mainly Chinese and Israeli landmines planted by Cubans and South Africans, and similar kinds of land mines are made by any one of a number of American companies, such as Raytheon Corp., based just outside of Boston.

And then there are cluster bombs. In my travels, people from the Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Mozambique, and Uganda have told me horror stories of the effects of these diabolical bombs, and on my return from these places what do I find on the other side of the looking glass? The shameful fact that Textron Defense Systems in the town of Wilmington, on the outskirts of Boston, is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of cluster bombs. The danse macabre of so many unlucky countries is a billion-dollar business, part of the Massachusetts economic miracle.

When the surviving suspect of the Boston Marathon bombing was charged with using “a weapon of mass destruction,” I mentally compared the two pressure cookers in the assault to an advanced cluster bomb, the so-called Sensor Fuzed Weapon made by Textron Defense Systems. As The Boston Globe reported, this little marvel is designed “to spray 40 individual projectiles of molten copper, destroying enemy tanks across a 30-acre swath of battlefield.” And not only enemy tanks, but humans, too.

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After the bombing in Boston, a banner was lifted by rebels in Syria: BOSTON BOMBINGS REPRESENT A SORROWFUL SCENE OF WHAT HAPPENS EVERY DAY IN SYRIA. DO ACCEPT OUR CONDOLENCES. That banner which reminded me of life in the Belfast of recent memory, could be also raised in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo, South Sudan, in the Red Corridor of India bedeviled by the Naxalites, or in Assam under assault by the bombers of separatist movements, where almost every day is another day of heartbreak, of lives destroyed, bodies maimed, families torn apart. Boston did not deserve this—no city does—and it is lamentable that Boston has come to resemble the wider world of wreckage and bereavement.

The Looking Glass exists for everyone who travels back from violent places of the earth. And it contains another paradox. Just before you pass through the Looking Glass, you are looking at your own reflection. I was struck by the recognition of the Israeli spymasters, sadder but wiser, in the recent documentary The Gatekeepers, when at the end of that powerful film they reached the conclusion that in observing the Palestinians, they were looking in the mirror. “We have won already,” they’d been told by their enemy. “Victory for us is to see you suffer.”