By Dr. Angela Bauer-Levesque
On a bus to New York City on the second day after the Boston Marathon bombings, for an appointment at Trinity Church Wall Street, near what has become known as Ground Zero, I listened to my body. I realized that I couldn’t shake the comparisons between Boston 4/15 and 9/11 despite the tremendous difference in scope.
|Boston at Night, photo by Jenna Ethier|
It was a gorgeous spring day in New York City (as I heard it had been in Boston as well), blue skies, blooming trees, lots of people enjoying their lunch outside, hustle and bustle everywhere. Walking by the huge construction site, which Ground Zero has been for many years now—with the so-called Freedom Tower still missing its top and the lines for getting into the 9/11 Memorial winding around the block—I am annoyed by all the tourists, and even more so by the young men and women still hawking overexposed photos of the former Twin Towers, and postcards of their firebombing and eventual collapse. How long will this insane practice continue? When will the memorial allow for quiet and reflective visits, time to mourn and time to remember? 9/11 has become a complicated symbol for all kinds of uses and abuses. I wonder what fears are covered up by such commodification.
The New York Stock Exchange is blocked off by police vehicles, and any car coming close is inspected both inside and underneath with a mirror on a long stick—just like back then and like crossing in and out of the former German Democratic Republic. Fear is in the air. While the ID-ing is relatively minimal here by comparison, and even this morning leaving South Station was far less careful than I had expected, the feelings of vulnerability remain. Folks everywhere are talking about danger and about “others” acting suspicious. I pray that at least in New York and Boston we can stay away from hate mongering in general, and Islamophobia in particular. Time will tell, and the solidarity of Christians and white folks is needed. White Christian privilege means that some of us have far less reason to fear than others. We won’t be profiled because of the Marathon bombings; we won’t be harassed because of ethnicity and religion of the 9/11 terrorists.
My one day round trip was emotional and sensual in strange ways of heightened awareness of sounds, sights, and smells. While the feelings make sense to me—they are the same—other comparisons between NYC 9/11/2001 and Boston 4/15/2013 do not. The scope is just so different.
For several weeks after 9/11 streets below 14th Street in New York City were closed off; more than 300,000 people were either evacuated or continued to live amidst smoldering buildings for 50-plus days, and a chemical stench lingered for months. There were thousands of flyers with photos of missing family members and neighbors posted all over. In comparison, Boylston and Newbury between Arlington and Mass Avenue is a small area of 15 blocks, shrunk to 12 blocks within 36 hours, and further since. All marathoners and spectators were accounted for within hours. I understand that the businesses and offices that were shut down feel differently. Traffic jams, not air quality, appear to be the biggest complaint I have heard.
Uncontrolled violence makes fear grow, and perspective and vision shrink. Many, myself included, focus on the nearby and almost lose sight of the wider world. I was reminded by a friend who lives elsewhere in the United States that on Monday, when the two explosions killed three young people (so far) and injured 170 or so others enough to be hospitalized, many more people were killed across the country and around the world; bombs explode daily in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria—the list of places where IEDs (improvised explosive devices) go off all the time runs on. I know that comparing numbers gets us nowhere. The obscene olympics of death tolls, of competition for attention, renders some deaths as more important than others, and thus more grievable, as Judith Butler argues so powerfully in Frames of War (2010). Fear shrinks the world we inhabit. Nevertheless, the dead and the injured and their families need compassion and support of the community in grieving and beyond.
On Friday, confined to our homes in Cambridge, Watertown, and Boston for most of the day, asked by the Governor to “shelter-in-place,” a new euphemism for lock-down, we watched TV on and off. Living in Inman Square in Cambridge, my partner and I could hear parts of the operation at the suspects' family home a few streets over. Fear had moved outside. Colleagues, friends, and family emailed, called, or sent messages on Facebook to express their worries about our well-being.
I learned that the events overnight toward and in Watertown had scared students on campus, who heard non-stop sirens for quite some time, police and other emergency vehicles, as well as helicopters, fanning fears that they would somehow be confronted with violence. During the night and throughout the day, the repetitive media coverage fed a frenzy of fear. “Controlled explosions” were announced again and again; military helicopters circled overhead; cell phone reception was blocked for hours. As the day wore on, it became increasingly difficult to focus on work or even chores around the house. We let the trauma consume us, even without a feeling of fear. Nervous laughter at the “stupidity” of this or that move may have masked it. Video images of amassing security personnel, local and regional police, FBI, ATF, bomb squad and other military vehicles with mostly men pointing assault rifles, while racing around street corners, were intended to make the 400,000 locked-in people feel safe, even as an official admitted that the numbers were operationally unnecessary. Fear had become a piece of the strategy of apprehending the one 19-year old suspect. Unsettled by security, I began to fear for the fugitive, my fear flirting with empathy.
Fires of fear were further fanned by newscasters, as the ethnicity and religion of the suspects became public. The suspects were racialized as “other,” of color, not white, “not Caucasian,” even though Chechnya, the country of their ancestors, is part of the Caucasus mountains. Feeding the rising Islamophobia and xenophobia, the images, words, and actions in the Boston area and beyond make me afraid of another wave of hate and harassment toward Arab, South Asian, and Muslim communities, similar to the experiences of the profiling after 9/11—their fear of communal blame and reprisals.
While the shelter-in-place request was still on, after the police activity in the neighborhood had slowed down, I ventured outside, and drove a couple of miles to pick up a friend, who would join us for dinner. The streets were eerily empty; people who were out walking their dogs or tending to the outside of their houses glanced furtively over as I passed. My fear returned. It was clearly not about another explosion or the potential of physical harm. Rather, I was afraid of what the next street corner would reveal, having internalized the general mood. Another beautiful spring day was almost over, and mostly lost, as I realized how much this lock-down cost, monetarily, emotionally, and in terms of diminished life for so many, the grieving and injured families and communities included.
I am relieved that the second suspect was apprehended alive. I am glad that this chapter of the trauma is closed. I know that there will be more traumas revisited, interpretations offered, accusations made, exceptional legal consequences demanded; and fear will not be far from the surface. I see the challenge to work against the inclination to demonize any group of people, be it immigrants, Muslims, or any other scapegoats, all because of our unresolved feelings. The upcoming Kellogg Lectures at Episcopal Divinity School will be one of what I hope will be many opportunities to explore the complexity of powers and people, politics and religions, fueling the events of this week.
Definitely, fear is not all. Of those of us who have learned to cover our feelings, some move to sadness, tears eliciting gestures of comfort; some move to anger accusing scapegoats old and new; some stay with their fear from knotted stomachs to canceled events to perilous fantasies of destruction. Amidst it all, my prayer is for wisdom in world awareness, calmness in community, and courage to continue living our lives fully and publicly. Will you join me?
Dr. Angela Bauer-Levesque is academic dean and Harvey H. Guthrie Jr. Professor of Bible, Culture, and Interpretation at Episcopal Divinity School. She has served on the faculty since 1994.