While it has become a cliché to say that some event or another "changed everything," September 11, 2001 truly did that. Americans will never feel as secure again as they did before that day dawned. Patriots Day is one of those days when we let our guards down a little, but when the horrific footage from the Boston Marathon bombing arrived on television and over the Internet, that sense of insecurity came rushing back. We'd seen all this before.
The shaky camera shots of frightened people running through smoke. The blood, the chaos, the emergency personnel scrambling to help. These kinds of scenes used to be regarded as almost exclusively Middle Eastern, until the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, and then, the cataclysmic events of 9/11. This happens to us now, a reality that truly hit home on Monday, a holiday marking the unofficial arrival of spring and celebrated by a Boston Red Sox home game and the running of one of the world's most celebrated road races.
President Obama on Tuesday made it official, declaring that the twin bombings along the final stretch of the Boston Marathon course in the middle of the city constituted an "act of terrorism," but that was apparent as soon as the second explosion quickly followed the devastating blast at the finish line. What is not known is if this was an act of domestic or foreign terror, or whether the bombings were carried out by some malevolent psycho. Not knowing is doubly infuriating, as there is no specific place where rage can be focused.
The bomber or bombers used techniques common to Iraq, Afghanistan and other wars fought without battlefields and uniforms. The bombs were essentially pressure cookers, packed with nails, pellets and other forms of shrapnel designed to do as much damage to the human body as possible. The targets were men, women, children rooting for people like themselves -- the world-class marathon runners had long since finished -- proudly poised to complete an athletic accomplishment. The mentality of the attackers is impossible to grasp -- although, once again, we had seen it all before.
As was the case in lower Manhattan nearly 13 years ago, wonderful stories of heroism and simple kindness emerged. Police officers, medical personnel on hand to tend to exhausted runners and spectators rushed into the smoke and emerged with badly injured people in wheelchairs and on stretchers. When the smoke began to clear and runners, many from elsewhere in the nation and in the world, wandered lost without their street clothes, wallets, and cellphones, Bostonians offered them their own cellphones to call families, money, a place to sleep, a sweater, a free meal, a ride to a hotel. Houses of worship opened their doors, Boston's renowned hospitals worked to save lives and limbs.
These stories offer some consolation amidst the sadness and horror. At some point, America will learn who was responsible, although the nation may never know why. Either way, Boston and the United States will and must go forward.