The bombings yesterday at the Boston Marathon have yet to be assigned to a particular perpetrator, and are, in any case, an American tragedy, but it is not hard to wander into a Mid-Eastern spin without assigning blame to Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism. My first thoughts seeing the scenes of pandemonium right after the blast were of the many such Israel scenes during the Intifada. I’m certain there have been similar scenes after bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan, though our media show those scenes less often. These are scenes of human fear and loss, brought to bear on individuals who are at no fault, by forces without a human concern, without empathy. To the enemy, as defined by the terrorist, no tenderness, only unbounded rage.
A Massachusetts District Attorney took part in the news conference this morning that was scheduled by the politicians and investigators in Boston, and he opened his statement with the words, I approximate, “This was an act of cowardice.” And I was taken aback, as I always am, by that choice of words. This was an evil act, it was a malign act, but what has cowardice to do with it? Was he saying that the fact that it was a package bomb rather than a suicide bomb was an indication that the bombers were unwilling to stand up for their beliefs?
I remember that the comedian Bill Maher got himself in some trouble by pointing this out and wondering why the Al Qaeda bombers of the world trade center were often called cowards. What, he asked, was cowardly about knowingly giving your life in a cause you believed in? That was taken as if he was defending the terrorists, when in fact all he was doing was riffing on the oddity of the use of that term. Evil, yes. Monstrous, yes. Inhuman, yes. But cowardly?
The problem, here, is that in using that trope we buy into the macho ethic that manliness is more important than life and worse than death is dishonor. Disagree with me if you will, and some of you will, this seems to me to be an unfortunate vestige of the warrior cultures of the past, and that culture continues to struggle to replace that sentiment with mutual concern and the preferencing of peace over territoriality, chauvinism and narcissism. This is what drives Palestinians who suffer indignities at checkpoints to justify their murderous rage, and Palestinian mothers to express that hopes that their sons and daughters should die as martyrs. This is what drives suicide bombers and the killing of one’s daughter for dishonoring the family by her sexual behavior (and, incidentally, also spousal abuse and the kind of profanity that was amusingly described in this past Sunday’s NYT Week in Review). It is what drives Iran and North Korea to pursue nuclear weapons for no earthly reason other than the affirmation of their manhood. War is driven by this pridefulness and will be substantially reduced if we can but affirm that not bravery but goodness is our primary value.
We need to wean ourselves totally from this concept. Pirkei Avot has it that we need to become the disciples of Aaron, who loved peace and pursued it. More easily said than done -- the attitudes that support our aggression are deeply baked in, even among the best of public servants.
Rabbi Michael Graetz penned a prayer in the context of Israel’s continuing terrorism troubles, which speaks to the people of Boston today, of Newtown yesterday, and who knows where else tomorrow. The English is my own, and I have taken the liberty of amending the prayer in ways that generalize it from the more context-specific language that he used.
I cry for these. My eye streams tears