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The Admirably Calm Response to Boston

Boston Bombings
Photo: Getty Images; Illustration by Bloomberg View

April 16 (Bloomberg) -- “Boston bombings shatter a national sense of safety,” read one headline this morning. “A perfect Marathon day, then the unimaginable,” read another. These summations were plausible enough, because yesterday’s attack was the first successful strike against a U.S. city since Sept. 11, 2001. A national security official from the George W. Bush administration expressed the same thought in even more dramatic terms. “In some ways,” Juan Carlos Zarate said, “this ruptures the psyche.”

Plausible -- but not, we’re glad to say, correct. What’s striking about the initial response to this atrocity is how calm it has been. There was no illusory sense of safety to shatter; the Boston bombing was all too imaginable before the fact; and the national psyche is intact. This measured and purposeful reaction is the worst possible news for the perpetrators, whomever they turn out to be. Rupturing the psyche is what terrorism is supposed to achieve. If it fails to do that, it fails, period.

In the years since the Sept. 11 attacks -- a shock on an entirely different scale -- the country has learned to cope, grudgingly but stoically, with the possibility of further terrorist attacks and the elaborate security arrangements that are designed to pre-empt them. Of course, one can argue about the cost and effectiveness of these defenses, about the infringements of liberty and the sheer nuisance, about how to strike the right balance. But what critics deride as the security state is a reality that most Americans recognize: Terrorists of one sort or another are a threat we must live with, a danger we can diminish but not eradicate. When the defenses are evaded, as they will be from time to time, you mourn, gather your resources and carry on. That’s the prevailing mood after Boston.

Partly thanks to those defenses, attacks like this have been astonishingly rare in the U.S., which despite Sept. 11 remains one of the world’s most open societies. In countries where terrorist attacks are almost routine, a different challenge arises -- to avoid becoming entirely hardened to them. One must hold on to the full measure of horror at the deliberate maiming of innocents, never losing sight of the wickedness of those responsible, even while refusing to succumb to shock and paralysis. On a beautiful day in Boston, bombs went off, stealing lives, piercing bodies and souls. Disgust at what happened is unbounded, as it should be. Overreactions here and there are to be expected, but there’s no derangement or excess in the nation’s collective response.

The failures of intelligence and security, if any, will need to be examined -- though not, we trust, in the desire to find scapegoats among officials who are doing their best. The country knows no effort will be spared in the search for the attackers. It can take comfort in the zeal of first responders who run to the victims. As President Barack Obama said today, “If you want to know who we are, who America is, how we respond to evil -- that’s it. Selflessly, compassionately, unafraid.”

Disgust, calm resolve and a steady sense of purpose are the psyche’s main defenses against evil. Innocents have been killed and grievously injured, but on the next day, those walls were standing.

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