By Trudy Rubin
It does no disservice to the victims of the marathon bombing to say we were fortunate on Monday.
We were fortunate that the extraordinary spirit of the marathon showed the country – and the world – how we will handle such outrages. We were so very fortunate that the carnage wasn’t much worse. And we are fortunate that a massive police effort has already unearthed key video, improving the odds that the perpetrator will soon be hunted down.
As a native Bostonian, I’ve seen how the Boston Marathon brings out the best in people and communities. Whole families line the route to offer water or encouragement to runners. Participants come from around the world, and the crowd cheers them all, with special encouragement for slower runners.
It’s that determination to see the run through, or help others make it, that makes the Boston Marathon great – and imbued the reactions after the bombs.
That spirit was epitomized by Carlos Arredondo, a bystander who was handing out American flags at the marathon in memory of the son he lost in Iraq. Arredondo rushed toward the scene of the blasts, put a tourniquet around the shredded leg of one victim, and helped him to an ambulance.
The medics who reacted so quickly, and the Bostonians who gave stranded runners shelter when the airport shut down, also demonstrated the marathon spirit. So did the dozens of Boston University students who canvassed area hospitals to find out what happened to two young Chinese graduate students (one died, one is seriously injured) who had been standing near the finish line. They, too, showed a marathon-like determination not to give up or give in.
That is important, because the attack shows that terror strikes at home are not a thing of the past, despite their absence over the past decade. Since 9/11, U.S. military and intelligence efforts have decimated the core of al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Proactive security efforts by U.S. law enforcement have nipped several domestic plots. And a more aware citizenry has also prevented potential catastrophe, as in the case of the underwear bomber who was tackled by airline passengers over Detroit.
These preventive efforts have been so successful that a Gallup poll conducted in early April found zero percent of Americans volunteering “terrorism” as the country’s most important problem, as compared with 46 percent just after the Sept. 11 attacks.
There is reason for more caution now, but not for making terrorism a public obsession. Al-Qaeda has spawned offshoot groups in the Mideast that would like to conduct operations in the United States. They put bomb-making information on the Internet that can be accessed by any domestic terrorist wannabe.
The risk remains that disturbed or determined individuals can cause carnage, although more limited in scope than the destruction of the World Trade towers. Indeed, jihadi websites have called on supporters to undertake more limited, individual attacks.
Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani American whose bomb-laden SUV failed to explode in Times Square on Christmas Day in 2009 is a prime example of a lone-wolf bomber. (One of his improvised bombs was concocted with a pressure cooker, the kind of container that investigators suspect was used in the Boston bombs.)
So Americans will have to be more vigilant, taking the catchphrase “see something, say something” more seriously. In Israel, a country with all too much experience with terrorism, any unattended backpack on the street would be quickly blown up by a bomb squad. (That almost happened, several years ago, to a suitcase I left unattended momentarily at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.)
Yet, despite this need for greater threat awareness, Americans are still exceptionally fortunate. Consider that, also on Monday, dozens of bomb blasts killed at least 37 Iraqis and injured about 273 more. Heaven knows how many innocent Iraqis were blown up by car bombs over the past decade.
Israelis endured years of bombs in buses, cafes, nightclubs, and public places, yet they carried on. In Pakistan, in one of innumerable bomb attacks, a Sunni fanatic detonated himself next to a Shiite religious procession, embedding chunks of metal in the back and buttocks of a teacher friend of mine. She is now back with her students.
Next year, thousands of marathon runners will still be rounding “Heartbreak Hill” and heading toward the finish line at Copley Square in Boston. Families will still be lining the streets, hopefully still bringing their children. They will be on alert for any suspicious packages, but will still be focused on cheering their friends on. And, no doubt, Arredondo will be back handing out flags.