On Tragedy and The Boston Marathon

On April 15, something horrifying, cruel, insane, tragic happened- the finish line at the Boston Marathon was bombed. And not just the finish line but elsewhere too! This senseless act of utter depraved gore really struck chords with me- there’s been so much senseless life taking these past few years (decades? centuries? millennium?) that a certain amount of numbing has swept over me which all flooded to the surface on April 15. Maybe it’s because I can’t imagine running for the better part of a day only to be assaulted with shrapnel at the finish line, or maybe it’s because I am overwhelmed hearing how some runners kept going all the way to the hospital to donate blood, or maybe it’s just because it’s too much to process and this one finally broke the dam of emotions I hold back to function day to day in this country’s rude insanity. Either way, I started thinking about what such a tragedy really means- the ways we grieve and respond to it; the way we feel about such things.
If you’re not feeling appalled, you’re simply not feeling. I think we have so many feelings and aren’t really allowed to express them adequately. If you’re not interested in what happened, you’re a terrible person, insensitive and suspect. If you’re perceived to be too broken up over it (you don’t even know anyone in Boston you faker) you’re just putting on a show for attention. If you’re not sad enough, you’re not taking this seriously. If you’re not donating blood, organizing a fund drive and making sure that all of your conversations and blog posts and tweets are about this tragedy, you’re not really doing what you can. If you have a shitty day and feel bad you’re being selfish because think of all those other people. Or even if you just feel bad, you’re selfish because think of all those other countries

Let’s just cut this short and say that no matter what you feel, people will take issue with how or why you feel it. It’s the same with every tragic thing that happens- we’re all supposed to feel appalled and upset and then we return to normal and no one speaks on it again because we don’t want to be perceived as an asshole or keep harping on something that is over (they caught the guy- who cares). And that doesn’t serve anyone. In this culture, discourse about tragic events has somehow morphed into a “right to feel” competition with really the only people “earning” that right as the immediate victims of the incident and the family and maybe some heroes too. Not that you shouldn’t feel anything- it’s a question about how much. It’s a question about “how long” or how much does it really affect you. Because if you’ve never even been to Boston and don’t know a single person there (or even a single person who knows a person…) then how can you possibly feel as much as someone who was physically there in that moment running for safety? It’s that mentality that there is a spectrum and entitlement to emotion that is problematic.

We’re all victims! The degree to which we are victims varies greatly but we’re all on the same spectrum. People all over the entire world (and any extra terrestrial life as well) can mourn these things and there is nothing wrong with that . There is no prerequisite to feeling that you must earn. We are all victims and we all deserve to process, experience, and deal with things like this however it suits us. That processing may appear as totally ambivalence or over-sensitivity. It is irrelevant- not for you to judge (or anyone to judge you). You do you. As long as processing and feeling does not hurt anyone or turn into extreme self-hurt, it is up to each person how to deal with their feelings about public tragedies.

Which is to say, I have friends and family in Boston, but I knew they were okay. However, I felt like sobbing all day long. When other events have happened in the past, I felt nothing or something entirely different. Sometimes my responses are embarrassing to me because I think I should respond a certain way but that is just what comes out. So what? So I respond the way I need to at that moment. There is no good way to respond to grief, tragedy, trauma- there is just the way you respond and as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else it doesn’t matter if it’s “normal” or not.

What if you’re happy? Well, if you’re happy, you’re happy. I personally can’t imagine having my feelings bubble out as joy (or “joy”) but that doesn’t mean that you can’t or won’t feel it. If you do, then you are still able to feel that as well! While it doesn’t seem to make sense, it’s not about what you should feel or what it makes sense to feel, it’s about actually feeling. Whatever comes through your feel-o-meter is part of the process.

It is distressing when humans do such cruel and senseless acts of violence against each other. That is upsetting no matter who you are or where you are located. It takes away the safety we feel in our communities because anything and anyone becomes a target. Our trust is broken. Everything is broken and yet it all seems to go on like nothing happened- the structures more or less stand, but our feeling about them changes. No one says you shouldn’t be affected (they assume and demand that you be affected)- they just assume you should feel a certain way about it when really, there is no way to feel other than what you actually feel.
“If you’re not talking about how horrible this was, just shut up.” As this tragedy unfolds and more details surface, there will start to be a non-dialogue about what should be spoken of and what is just too tragic to speak about without being disrespectful to the memories of those involved. If you think back to the bombing of the twin towers, it is still taboo to speak critically about what happened. While there is a desire to speak on those facts that don’t seem to (or actually) “add up”, there is a large segment of the population that doesn’t even want to discuss it. “It’s too horrific” or “how dare you” or “it’s disrespectful to their memory” are all ways to shut down meaningful conversation about what happened. If people don’t believe the mainstream story, that’s also a way to make sense of and process what happened.

For some people accepting and believing what the “official” or mainstream consensus on what happened is good enough. For others, they must pick the situation apart until the cracks appear and they will always want to believe (and rightfully so) that they aren’t getting the full story. There are still others that will find solace in “knowing” that the entire thing didn’t actually happen or it was a conspiracy. And who are we really to discount any or all of these responses? Accountability is not always great on the side of the information dispensaries (government, media) and obviously creates mistrust. Then again, many people want to honor the lives destroyed and lost by these tragic ends by providing as accurate of information as possible. In the effort to do that, mistakes are made. However, by hushing conversation about inconsistencies because it seems rude or crazy or dishonoring, no one gains anything. It just makes actual meaningful dialogue about prevention, accountability, and protection taboo.

We need to talk about why these things are horrible and how to stop it from occurring again. We need to talk about holding agencies that let this slip by them accountable. We need to talk about how we can protect ourselves against attacks like these without losing our freedom. We need to talk about how the facts don’t add up or changed in ways that are unsettling. We just need to talk about the situation like anything else. By shutting down meaningful conversation about tragedy, you are hurting more than helping. People stuck in silent rumination can come to conclusions that are erroneous or hurtful simply because they were not allowed to speak openly about their processing. This goes for anything from mundane daily tasks to bombings. This is just part of being a “social creature” that needs to speak openly about reality.
Whatever- 2 people? What about the hundreds that die in the Middle East?! Look, human tragedy is not a competition. Even if it wasn’t a horrific bombing and just a family member passing away, that still deserves respect. It deserves mourning. That doesn’t minimize the depravity of senseless wars and the thousands (millions) of people that are murdered and killed by bombs in the Middle East. However, we don’t have to discount what happened at the Boston Marathon by drawing parallels to other places. There are ways to honor both equally and with the respect they deserve without discounting or ignoring either. You are allowed to feel grief. You are allowed to be sad and feel violated and mourn the loss this tragedy presented. All the wars in the world will not change the feelings that you have. The difference between honoring both the feelings you have about wars abroad and the attack in Boston (or any of the school shootings that have transpired) is that by comparing the two and belittling the domestic experience as negligible, you do not make it okay to discuss and process the emotions that arise. You don’t allow the emotions to arise to be dealt with effectively as you shut down all dialogue on the topic that could actually lead to great consciousness about the very same wars. By honoring that people have a right to feel about the Boston Marathon- unique to this domestic issue- you allow people to draw their own parallels or give them space to feel safe discussing parallels once the fresh wound of this has healed a bit.

This nation needs to be able to discuss its issues but is unable to do that in any effective manner when we’re told it’s wrong to feel sad because there are sadder things. Or that it’s wrong to feel angry because there are more infuriating things. Or that it’s wrong to feel because it was a sad thing. It is not up to anyone to judge the feelings that arise but rather provide a safe space for those feelings to be processed so that meaningful dialogue can transpire when it’s time.

For example, by seeing images of the marathon, we can open up a dialogue about fetishization of gruesome imagery as well as a dialogue about why this imagery is absent when in regards to Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq or any other place. Why are we being denied access to these images except in certain select situations? That doesn’t diminish what happened, it just calls into question the access and availability of information and asks why we prioritize some tragedies over others- no where in that are tragedies compared or ordered.

The number of people that die each year fully dwarfs any number of people that die even in wars- think of how many die from heart disease, cancer, car crashes, and health related illnesses. That doesn’t mean because the death toll is low in a war or bombing or shooting that the tragedy is any less tragic. I know it should go without saying as it seems like the horrific nature really makes this obvious. And yet there is a certain amount of “well look how many people died here- it’s not that bad” that gets tossed around. But it doesn’t matter! And it doesn’t matter whether those murdered were young or old either though for obvious reason, children dying or being maimed is much more heart-wrenching. Regardless, death is death and it is tragic even when those people are old and ready to die. There is no way to dance about the finality that death presents in youth or otherwise and to pass judgments on how many died and how old they are is missing the point. The point is that a horrendous affront to our national community happened in a catastrophic and disgusting way. Even if there wasn’t a single injury or death, the fact that someone would target a recreational activity with the malicious intent to harm is horrifying. This is scary shit. Do not belittle the nature of the tragedy due to low death counts or faulty comparisons. Our society is sick and this is a symptom. The actions that are taken any where else in the world are just as disappointing and disheartening but there is no “this deserves more mourning” as it is all saddening. We are raised to believe that people are kinder to each other than this. Whether that is a constant reminder or a call to awakening is irrelevant. Let us drop comparisons and be appreciative of the suffering this (and actions like it) cause without belittlement.

Damn those terrorists- that’s why we bomb their countries! using Islamophobic rhetoric and mentalities to justify further cruel and horrendous acts on other people like those suffered on your shores is not okay. Targeting people you suspect caused this (i.e. Muslims, black or dark skinned people, Middle Easterners and so on) is just as unacceptable as the act itself. Foreign-based terrorism or not
, there is no need, no right, no justification for acting in such a way against innocent people just because they look a certain way.

In the case of the recent school shootings and even older events like Oklahoma City bombing, the perpetrators were white. Despite being white, white men aren’t targeted and victimized by angry Americans. They are left alone because it seems obvious that most white men are not the perpetrators of this crime as well as most Muslim, Middle Eastern or other people of color are not terrorists or perpetrators of terrorism. There is not a justification for taking a tragic event like the Boston Marathon and turning it into a cause for hate filled rhetoric and agenda pushing against people who are no more culpable than the people wielding the offensive speech. We need to come together and not separate ourselves by fictional accusations. Whether or not the bombers turn out to be domestic or foreign; Muslim or Christian, black, dark, poc, or white does not change the fact that the only guilty parties deserving scorn are the perpetrators not the individuals who look like them or share other incidental characteristics with them.

Finally, because I am a parent and struggle immensely with what I divulge to my children, how I present myself in reaction to this news, I think the following links will be helpful from PBS:

Mr. Rogers on scary news

PBS and Sesame Street director on answering children’s questions on scary news

strategies for talking to kids about the news

Dr. Markham on speaking to your children

I would also like to add that being authentic and truthful is important to kids. You don’t have to sugar coat death, destruction, mayhem, or tragedy. To be honest about the event will help communicate to your children that it is okay to feel what might arise for them. It is unnecessary to be detailed in describing the situation, but it is important to be honest about what happened.

If your child asks if kids were hurt, be honest. If they ask why someone would do this, it’s okay to say you don’t understand yourself or give reasons that make sense to you. If its too hard for you to speak about, be honest about that and tell your child. It’s okay to tell them the issue is very upsetting and you don’t want to talk about it past what you’ve said.

These days are tough times and we all feel loss and grieve but we need to do so with compassion and mindfulness. Leave the judgment and hate aside and see that in this there is only suffering from the perpetrators to the victims and everyone. We don’t have to forgive, but please do not forget that your actions and words have impact and during a time like this, the more positive impact and healing we can all bring, the better off we will all be. The way we deal with this today will set the stage for how we can move forward and deal with war crimes, shootings and all other acts of inhumanity.

Deepest condolences to the families and victims of the marathon. We stand in solidarity with you always.

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