“Cowardly. “Evil.” “Beneath contempt.” I heard these words over and over and over again in the days following this week’s bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, an attack which left, at last count, three people dead and more than 100 wounded.
And then there were the patriotic exhortations. “We are all Americans.” “We must stand together. “This is bigger than politics.” We all strained to feel good, mouthing truisms and platitudes as though they were tranquilizers, as, indeed, they were. But I can’t help but wonder whether the bomber or bombers had a larger message, a warning about a dream deferred too long for too many.
Who targeted the Boston Marathon? Why?
Law enforcement promised answers. The alphabet soup of agencies we pay to keep us safe crawled all over Boston. Soon there will be more talk of what steps we must take to make sure something like this never happens again.
I’ve a sneaking suspicion we’ll see plenty more of this sort of mayhem. Violence is, after all, as American as apple pie. The wonder is that there is not more of it.
In the late nineteenth century, political violence was common in this country. The showdown between organized labor and capital often resulted in bloodshed and destruction of property. And there were terrorists, too – men and women who thought that violence had a political purpose.
In the 1892, labor and capital squared off at Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills in Homestead, Pennsylvania. When workers represented by the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers were locked out of the Carnegie Steel Company, Carnegie sought to break the strike with non-union workers. On July 6, things turned bloody: nine union members and seven guards hired through the Pinkerton Detective Agency were killed in a gun battle at the plant’s gates.
A young emigre named Alexander Berkman read about the conflict, and was outraged. Corporate America was cheating the working man. Ordinary people were being locked out of the American dream. It was time to rally labor to take a stand.
On July 23, 1892, Berkman walked into the office of Henry Clay Frick, the Carnegie executive who was determined to break the union at all costs, and shot him. When the gun jammed, he pulled out a long, sharpened steel file, and stabbed Frick. But Frick survived the wounds; Berkman was quickly arrested, confessed with pride, and then, after representing himself at trial, was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Berkman never got over public reaction to the assassination attempt. He assumed his act of violence would rally others to take direct action against industrialists who were content to exploit workers. Instead, Frick enjoyed a wellspring of support from folks on the right and left. Berkman was condemned as a monster.
Is the Boston bomber a latter-day Berkman?
The bomber is hated now, to be sure. And, if caught, a mere 14-year’s imprisonment would be a gift of a sentence by contemporary standards. But what of the bomber’s motives? What was he trying to accomplish?
It may be a mere coincidence that the bombs went off on Patriot Day in Massachusetts, a state holiday commemorating the stand of colonial rebels against England in the 18th century. That Patriot Day is also the anniversary of Timothy McViegh’s bombing of the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building in 1995 might also be coincidental. And call it serendipity that it was also tax day.
It might also be a mere coincidence that the target was the Boston Marathon, an event celebrating those who have the social support and economic wherewithal to train for, and complete, a 26.2 mile foot race. Was the event targeted to discomfit those with means to participate in it?
I am not suggesting that the bomb was set by a member of the far right, or that it was a plot hatched by the far left. My claim is simpler: The waking nightmare life has become for far too many Americans may just well be the answer to why the bombs were ignited. Call them a wake up call.
Just how many Americans have dropped out of the labor force in the past five years? How many have lost their homes? All this while major corporations got bailed out at taxpayer expense because they were too big to fail? The life chances of Americans in different social classes my vary dramatically, but all of us bleed the same blood red.
Violence is rarely an end in itself. We are a purposeful species. Sometimes an act of violence is a cry for help. Sometimes it is a form of protest. Papering over this distinction with patriotic declarations is a mistake: Far too many Americans now feel dispossessed. It would not surprise me if one of the forgotten Americans set the bombs, a soul desperate to be heard.
I would not be surprised to learn there’s a latter day Berkman out there hoping the Boston bombing is a new Lexington, a new Concord. He is probably amused by the shrill denunciations of violence. As he’s watched the American Dream dissolve all around him, he’s learned a thing or two about despair, rage and loss of hope. His wasted soul, his mocked spirit, want relief. Did he strike hoping that others would draw the message the City on a Hill is no more, that we’re now well into a long night in the valley of the shadow of death?
These are uncomfortable thoughts, and will draw their own denunciation by those who prefer the rosy colored view that things are just fine in this the best of all possible countries. Except we’re not the best. Whether in education, life expectancy, or economic opportunity, we’re sliding behind the rest of the developed world.
It’s small wonder that some are angry enough to strike out in violence.
The Boston bomber may not be a stranger. We’ve a little bit of him in us all. Most of us just can’t admit that – it’s too terrifying. Too many Americans knew all about terror before this week's act of terrorism.