Triumphing over Terrorism
Terrorists can kill and maim and destroy, but they can’t win unless we give in to them.

Vigil in Watertown, April 20, 2013


Boylston is empty.

It is Sunday, and Boylston Street — the avenue of the Boston Public Library, Copley Square, the Prudential Tower, and the Old South Church — is, nearly a week after the terrorist attack of Patriots’ Day, empty. One of the central arteries of the great New England metropolis — usually crowded with vitality and ambition and the hectic beat of urban life — is bare, with the exception of a few police officers and FBI agents. In a grim reminder of the toll of terror, a few signs celebrating the Boston Marathon remain in that empty space. A crime scene, that stretch of Boylston has also become a time capsule.

There is a hole in the city. There is a hole in too many families and too many hearts.

John Winthrop, a leader of those Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, proclaimed in 1630 that the new commonwealth would be a “City upon a Hill” to serve as an exemplar of success or failure to people around the world. Well, nearly 400 years after Winthrop’s sermon, the city of Boston serves yet again as an example: of what terror would destroy and of the means of resisting terror.

It is easy to see why terrorists would choose to target the Boston Marathon. The oldest annual marathon on the planet, dating from 1897, and inspired by the first modern marathon at the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, the Boston Marathon serves as a path between Old World and New. It locates the city in a humane tradition. The marathon also proves that local identity can be compatible with pluralist diversity; it brings together the city of Boston, but it also celebrates the accomplishments of runners from across the globe. The marathon is of Boston but not just of Boston, and certainly not just for Boston. In a time when the nation-state and local identity are so heavily under attack (by corporate globalism and anti-national ideologies, among other things), the marathon suggests the value and endurance of local culture.

In the bombing of the Boston Marathon, terrorists, as is their wont, sought to oppose what is best in our lives with what is worst. In a place of cosmopolitan patriotism, joyful striving, and civic fellowship, the terrorists would have bigotry, chaos, and disintegration. Rather than the discipline of high achievement, they choose killing, crippling, and hurting. The fact that the bombing took place on Patriots’ Day, a celebration of national accomplishment and sacrifice, only intensifies the inarticulate nihilism of the terrorists’ violence.

Global terrorism so often targets the nation-state and seeks to undermine civic bonds through amorphous violence. The goal of most modern-day terrorists is not creation but destruction: the destruction of lives, of public spaces, of civil discourse, of social trust, of cosmopolitan exchange, of the search for truth, of free inquiry, of cultural tolerance. The proselytizers of terror often aim to recruit the alienated, and the course of terror over the years has been the cultivation of alienation.

Can we recover from the trauma of terror? Will we spin down the porcelain bowl in a spiral of back-biting and faux-cosmopolitan cynicism? Will a selfishness born of cowardice overpower the duties of the moment and the challenges of freedom? The acolytes of terror wish it.

But their wishes might be countered by the strength of our hopes.

The terrorists have reminded us of the fragility of human life, but they have also called our attention to the resistance of the human spirit. Boston was not broken by their bombs, and the survivors will somehow go on. Against a few acts of evil poured a host of good deeds and virtuous endeavors. Random onlookers came to the aid of their fellow human beings in distress. Civic officials served with honor and to the utmost of their abilities. Medical personnel worked for countless hours. Businesses and private citizens reached out to those in the wreckage. And the city opened its heart to those hurt and in need. Virtue, compassion, and love have proven far stronger than violence, terror, and hate.

The city on a hill is strong, and its strength is proven by its willingness to go on. There is a lesson here for a free republic more broadly. As far as we can tell, the struggle to maintain a free society on this flawed Earth never really ends. There will always be new threats from abroad and will always be internal tendencies that could overthrow a liberal republic. The threats might be slavery or fascism or Soviet Communism or terrorism. There might not be a final victory (we cannot guarantee that there will never again be any terrorists), but there are victories. And the endurance of the Republic is a very fine victory indeed.

In the face of terror, we can remain steadfast in our freedom. We can maintain our best traditions, celebrate our heritage, and cherish our liberty and our virtue. We can pray and serve and try and hope. Every day we do not give in — to hate, to blind fear, to crippling nihilism — is a day terror has not yet won. Every day we go about our lives as a free, public-spirited people is another day we defend this Republic. Every day we live in these United States and take on the responsibility of freedom is a day we resist — no, triumph over — the ideology of terror. That refusal to give up what is good and noble is itself a victory over terror.

Twenty miles into the course of the Boston Marathon, a hill rises: Heartbreak Hill, a final daunting ascent before the last few miles of the race. That hill is hard and tough and exhausting — but the glory of the finish line waits ahead. That glory can be reached, but it demands a commitment to hope in the face of adversity, to pushing through the blood, sweat, and tears. Hope triumphs over heartbreak. That, at least, the marathon has taught us.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.