One of the blast sites on Boylston Street near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon
In the 21st century, American malevolence comes in twos. Just as people couldn’t begin to grasp what was happening until a plane hit the second of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, the full impact of what took place Monday in Boston didn’t sink in until, 13 seconds after the first explosion, another immediately confirmed the true implications of this particular horror. Tellingly and understandably, the initial response by all of us was to wrestle with the word “terror,” because as much as any word “terror” has become the rorschach of our modern rhetoric, a characterization that transforms the dimensions of an event even as the facts remain the same, when instead we might call what happened merely a “crime.” Was the explosion that took place at the Atlanta Olympics in the summer of 1996 less an act of terror because it came not in twos but ones? For many, long after the political motivations of Timothy McVeigh became evident, the single detonation in Oklahoma City in 1995—even more terrible than the one in Boston—remains a “bombing.”
Terror came to our shores on 9/11 courtesy of coordination and precision coupled, and 9/11 made its impact on our national psyche as a single cataclysm in the form of a pair, one next to the other, like beasts boarding the ark. Yes, of course, 9/11 wasn’t really a duo of attacks but a quartet, also at the Pentagon and over the skies of Pennsylvania, but it was the second strike, not the first or third or fourth, that changed the world. The second strike seared us in a way that made the third and fourth redundant. Consequently, second explosions now instantly suggest something foreign because so often it involves the conspiracy we’ve instinctively come to think of as jihadist; we assume lone wolves are domestic, or “American,” almost by definition. Two resonates as the numerical language of foreign orchestration and thus, within minutes of it happening, some of our more intuitive political chatterboxes deduced Islamic cunning in the attack at Boylston Street near Copley Square, with at least one commentator offering that the whole thing certified Barack Obama’s status as the worst president ever.
For someone who’s supposedly such a terrible president, Obama has become the country’s national mood ring, distilling better than anyone the emotional moment into its most exquisite expression. This is what presidents are supposed to do, but this one has become more accomplished at it than any in our lifetime, which includes for most of us distillers par excellence Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, and surely more accomplished than he would like to be, or than he would like to be given the opportunity to demonstrate. By Wednesday afternoon, when the United States Senate voted down the proposal to submit gun purchases to the same background check that an airline runs on us when we board a jet, the whole Cool Hand Luke shtick had gotten old for the president, when he spoke the two most inflammatory words he’s ever used in public—“shame” and “lie”—simply because it was no longer possible not to speak them, simply because civil tact had exhausted itself. Similar full-bloodedness informed his language at the service for those gathered at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross yesterday when the upshot of what he said, which was more determined than mere fury and more defiant than mere solace, will come as no bulletin: that the American people as a whole are better and braver than those who claim to represent them.
Americans don’t do ambiguity. This is why some part of us is grateful for a clarifying second boom that removes all doubt about the nature of the act if not its whys and wherefores. While the extremes of our political life conclude one thing or the other—and let’s not forget perfectly loony leftist suppositions that George W. Bush was really behind 9/11, not to mention other random theories that the current incident was an anti-tax statement by the Tea Party—most Americans are ready, in times like this week, to keep their ideological powder dry while vesting their energy and passion as patriots in mourning the dead and rescuing the wounded, and manifesting a spirit that won’t be beaten. Mayhem in duplicates is enough clarity for the moment, but in the meantime, history grooms us to wait for the dropping of second shoes.