A Boston firefighter, one of many who rushed in heroically to aid bomb victims, told a TV interviewer, "We will win. I promise you, we will win." Perhaps by the time you read this, authorities will have arrested one or more suspects in the Boston case. And it's possible they will be linked -- either directly or through "home grown" sympathies -- to international groups bent on destroying America. And if that proves to be the case, then most of us will agree wholeheartedly with that firefighter.
But what if the Boston bomber were a deranged individual, like the Newtown killer Adam Lanza, except armed with bombs instead of guns?
What if the culprit were another Timothy McVeigh, the Army vet who bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people? McVeigh's "politics" were essentially domestic; he resented police power and what he perceived as intrusion on Second Amendment rights.
In the post-9/11 world we look with suspicion at those around us, we worry about the next act of violence and are quick to label it "terrorism. As proud Americans, our instinct is to "win." Events immediately following the Boston Marathon underscore how confused we are, and how our desire to win is clouded by the vagaries of our times.
President Obama, in his initial statement to the nation, wisely declined to use the term "terrorism." Yet, within hours the White House was compelled, in part by media and political pressure, to apply the label.
Anyone who sets off bombs in public, or shoots up a school room, is a terrorist. But since 9/11 we reserve the term for organized international enemies. Any use of the word triggers a specific and profound string of emotions and sets off political rhetoric.
As it happened, the Boston bombing was followed by a strange case in which letters were sent to several lawmakers, including President Obama, containing a chemical that may have been the poison ricin. Rudy Giuliani, the New York mayor at the time of 9/11, was one of several who quickly stated publicly that the letters and the Boston bombing were most certainly linked. Even as Giuliani spewed his theory of widespread terrorism on Fox News, authorities were already confirming they had a suspect, a long-time writer of hate mail to elected officials.
And when reporters, including CNN's John King, rushed on the air with an erroneous story that a "dark skinned" suspect had been picked up in the Boston case, it seemed to confirm for many that, indeed, we were attacked again by Middle Eastern jihadists.
By the time a fertilizer plant exploded in Texas Wednesday night, the nation's news media were compelled to state repeatedly, "We don't know if this is connected in any way to the Boston bombing." These are the understandable signs of a stressed nation. We've never really recovered from 9/11; we wait for the next incident to ignite both our fears and our desire to win.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick selected the right words Thursday when he said the bombing left him "shocked, confused and angry." As a nation, we are all those things.
Time will, to some degree, remove the shock. Investigators are likely to produce quick details that will address our confusion. But what about our anger? Whether the enemy is a foreign force or a domestic malcontent, we must address our own anger. We can't give in to our fears, nor can we be too quick to label them out of convenience.
That's the only way to win.
Peter Funt can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com