I cried Monday evening when I first heard the news. Deaths, severed legs, chaos, disbelief, silence. Maybe I cried because as a runner in my youth I somehow knew the immediate experience, desecration of an intensely human celebration of life. Then slowly the larger picture came into view: the victims, extent of casualties, details however incomplete of the devices used, the insinuating remarks of the president hinting of terrorism as we’ve come to believe its presumed origins to be. Vindication that Homeland Security was always on the right track since 9/11, a subliminal endorsement of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, secrecy and the National Security State, the comparative safety enjoyed by Americans for a dozen years thanks to the noble efforts of Bush, Obama, and their national-security advisors.
It all made sense in, say, the first thirty-six hours: What better time and place for our “enemies” to strike back than on Patriots Day, in a wholly unexpected venue calculated to elicit maximum fears on the part of the people and nation. At this writing, nothing has changed, causation implicitly directed to foreign unnamed sources. But wait, even here there were two perplexing details, obvious to even a rank amateur, which simply did not fit the supposedly recognizable pattern. 1) No-one has come forward to claim responsibility; 2) the device, so primitive, right down to the timer and the nails, etc., and the timing—only some 15 seconds apart—hardly calculated to inflict the widest possible harm. Yesterday, my thought was seemingly out of the blue (and perhaps running the risk of being conspiracy-theory oriented), namely, the perpetrator, one seemed sufficient, was a twisted mind, angered by the growing sentiment in and out of Congress for some form of gun controls, and in perfectly logical (to individuals whose psychopathology of imagined deprivation of rights) thinking, reached the conclusion that right now a vivid act of terrorism would arouse the American people to see the need for self-protection via, of course, still more extensive gun ownership.
Create the need, and the solution follows. America is not armed enough. Danger lurks everywhere. NRA has been right from the start: arm the school teachers, arm the theater ushers, pack in the parks, the picnic grounds, because you can never tell when terrorism will strike—thought processes not different from and perhaps growing out of centuries of racism where blacks were the ferocious beast, the enemy at the gates, and, running a weak second, industrial labor, unions, militance, stealing our hard-earned earnings. Other candidates in the wings, beginning in the late 19th century: immigrants, especially from southern and eastern Europe, Jews in particular, the growing underclass of poor in the teeming cities, together an undifferentiated mass threatening the American Way of Life. Ethnocentrism run wild, authoritarianism its central element, incipient fascism its likely issuance, if not already.
All of this seemed clear—until today’s New York Times (Apr. 17), although no connections even remotely have been made. Patriots Day, the Marathon, sure a natural target, symbolically a “two-fer,” the occasion, a sacred symbol, patriotism itself, Paul Revere’s ride, and the marathon, the test of will, example of internationalism, purity of effort (nonmaterialism). But that explanation didn’t satisfy, as being not sufficiently specific, gun legislation in the air or not. The Times, however, on the front page brought out the aspect I had not seen before, nor had the media emphasized or mentioned. For many, the Boston Marathon was a memorial for the dead children at Newtown’s Sandy Hook elementary school—confirmed by a banner at the finish line, the participation of runners from Newtown, the interviews of others who wanted to honor those who died.
I submit, this was not the work of al-Qaeda or other group, but American, as having the last word on Newtown, the crazed endeavor to plod or plow ahead with gun rights, and defy all sense of decency, with an act of flagrant contempt for and profanation of human life, all for the sake of keeping at bay the imagined butchers, savages, ravagers who want to destroy America. Only guns stand in the way between them and us. This, admittedly, is conjecture on my part, but it fits so well the national picture, the legitimation for depriving others of human life in a still wider circle, now, holy of holies, in the name of national security. I refer specifically to the program sanctioned at the highest level of authorization, Obama’s armed drones for targeted assassination. Political-ideological dementedness above, has a way of sending shock waves through the remainder of society.
If I am wrong, and my gut feeling is that the culprit(s) will never be identified, I still maintain that such acts of barbarism as presidential assassination, global provocations, and the cynical celebration of wealth at home, create the ambience of lawlessness and disrespect for human integrity which make of America the kingdom of the armed and the sanctification of violence.
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.