THE BLOG

With the Boston Bombing, Fear Returns

Apr 16, 2013 | Updated Jun 16, 2013
Getty Images

So another day with another infamous history: April 15, 2013. That date has now been internalized in our collective guts. This is, alas, an easy one to remember. Tax Day. The Boston Marathon -- a race that will never again be run without a shiver of fear, a dark cloud.

Something so darkly grim about runners losing their limbs. One wonders if he or they who planned this thing thought of that -- if that gave them their own perverse extra shiver. Hard to know.

It took us a long time from 9/11, to calm down, but finally we did. Finally we started to relax, grumbling more about taking our shoes off in the endless airport security lines. The irritations of navigating around started to trump the fear, even though, deep down, none of us really thought 9/11 was a one-off. We were lucky; that's how it felt. That's over.

Now it starts again: the fear, the looking around, the suspicion, the sense of our fragility -- singularly and together.

I called a friend as soon as I heard. She is a marathon runner but wasn't in Boston. "I love you," I said. She laughed; she hadn't heard."Don't run anymore," I said. As if that would solve anything. As if the very point of this kind of act is its randomness, its ability to hit here, then there. Never the same place twice. Keep them guessing. Keep them alert. Keep them terrified.

And we are. We have moved back into the zone of fear. We are horrified but not shocked. We are no longer the abashed innocents. We are past that.

The country that went through a tragedy on Monday was not the country of a dozen years ago. On some level, we have been waiting for this, nerve-endings on alert no matter how life normalized and got taken up with the more mundane worries. We are sad, of course, above all, for those who were killed or lost a limb and for their families, sad, too, for our own children, be they in Los Angeles or Omaha or El Paso. They are getting their induction into the new reality, this, of course, on top of Sandy Hook. This is their world now. Madmen with guns, mad men with bombs with ball bearings in them.

I hear the psychologists talking on TV. They are mediagenic, full of Band-Aids and bromides. The men have coiffed hair, the women have buffed arms. Their makeup is perfect. Remind your kids, they tell us, of all the good people there are, the first responders, the trauma surgeons. Listening to them seems surreal, reassuring pap. Because what you hear, if you listen, is a wail from the parental heart of America.

We cannot keep our children safe. Yes, we can tell them they are good people and bad people, etc. etc. But we cannot keep them safe. That is the new reality. An eight-year-old boy died on the streets of Boston where he had gone to hug his father at the end of the race. This is your country now.

We grieve over our new sophistication, as it were. We are horrified, but we are growing calluses, getting to used to seeing the preternaturally calm face of our president speak to us again about the loss of lives-particularly of children. For them he will show tears.

We are on notice again: looking at backpacks and trash cans and vehicles left too long on our streets. Even I will do that again with heightened attentiveness, here in suburban L.A., where the crime has been decidedly down for a stretch of years.

Certainly I will be vigilant in a mass setting. One unhappy dividend of our new reality is that we are now crowd-phobic, knowing that in a group, we are a more appealing target for someone who wants to kill or maim as many of us as he can. A mall, a ballpark, a rock concert.

We are an odd lot, individualistic; we bowl alone. And then we venture forth and take unexpected pleasure in being part of an event, an audience, together. Look around. Everyone's laughing in synch, eating hot dogs or running a marathon. Thousands of Americans doing something together, clapping, rowing, running. Kaboom: Thank you for making such a nice target. Can you hear it: the sick laugh of the murderer?

One thing we hate is knowing we are hated. In the fiber of most Americans is that enduring sense that we are the good guys -- if not always perfect. There are those who take refuge in the notion that we are indeed perfect, exceptional, no matter what. In recent years, one has often heard a more balanced or nuanced read.

We have our own ugly images to deal with: Abu Ghraib, waterboarding (and go back, if you will, to slavery and to what was done to American natives).

No one is suggesting such things condone for one second on this earth what happened Monday. Only that we as a people have had to assimilate these images in our own self-image. For all that, for the darkness, for the crazies in the movie theaters and classrooms with their deranged minds and AK-47s, we still hold our country in a sacred place.

We honor it. We love it. We think it still, with whatever flaws, a moving and miraculous experiment in democratic ideals. We do. I do. For my country to be hated-enough, by someone who could do what was done yesterday -- is wounding on both an immediate (what will happen next?) level and an existential one.

A rage bubbles up. A deep rage-filled sadness. How will this end? How can we protect ourselves? How can we protect our children? We have so many questions now and not a lot of answers. We are the can-do guys, tall in the saddle, ready to fight for freedom. But this enemy is shadowy, popping up here and there -- this time in the middle of a bright spring day on the streets of Boston. Where next? We try not to ask ourselves, alert when we check our email or turn on the TV, for the next act of terrorism.

We hear, of course, the plucky rejoinder in the random interviews of people, the "we will not let the terrorists win" mantra. But underneath that bravado and, I suppose, admirable survival instinct, is a grief, not just for those maimed or lost, but for the sense of safety, of pleasure, of being able to congregate and celebrate without trepidation, without the sense of being vulnerable, hated, a potential statistic.

Three people were killed yesterday on the streets of Boston, 176 were injured. This is a different country today than it was yesterday. There has been the hope that somehow the law enforcement brigades with all their sophisticated equipment and surveillance were going to be able to keep us safe.

Even as we held our breath, have been holding it for over a decade and change. Yesterday, in sorrow, we exhaled.

This post was originally published in the Opinion section on Reuters.com.