Patriot’s Day, Massachusetts 2013. Two explosions tear through the crowds at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon a little over four hours after the event began. For the first time since 9/11 it is suddenly, horrifyingly possible to watch an unexpected human tragedy unfold live on television. First the hazy, smoke wreathed shots of the scene, then the video flashbacks from atop the finish line catching a brief snapping of flags in the wind followed by a flash of light and a plume of dust. Finally, courtesy of the Boston Globe, hand held camera footage of the moment from meters away. It is easy to feel the ghost concussion of the blast, a sympathetic flinch in reaction to the canon like boom of the explosion followed by the cries, the tearing of barriers and the falling of flag poles. All of this can be viewed spliced between rolling shots of emergency services at the scene and wheelchairs designed for cramped and dehydrated runners being used as makeshift stretchers. Wherever in the world one is sat, right now a city in the north east of America is bleeding, quite literally, and there is nothing to be done but watch.
The same feeling of helplessness was present nearly twelve years ago when, on a Tuesday afternoon I saw a plane fly into a waterfall on the broken TV set at school. The set was in the process of being fixed, washing waves of static over the screen so that, from a distance, the towers of Manhattan where invisible to me and the plane flew into a blurred, grey cascade of what I could only assume was water. I remember wondering, with a youthful naivety, why a plane would explode when it hit so much water and why, a few minutes later, a crying fellow pupil was ushered past the room. The television jumped into life for a few moments and the full horror of proceedings was revealed to me. The crying girl’s father, I later learned, was away in New York on business.
It would be wrong to assume, as many already have, that the similarities between 9/11 and today’s events do not stop there. There is no way of knowing who caused the flagpoles on Boylston Street to topple or why they wanted to kill and maim people as they approached the end of one of the world’s most famous marathons. Terrorism this may be but foreign or domestic, religious or otherwise the origins of this act cannot be clear while smoke still hangs in in the air. What the two events do share is, like most acts of indiscriminate violence, the sudden shattering of a peaceful day and a terrifying, disorientating aftermath.
Can any viewer of an atrocity played out in real time be expected to feel anything other than helplessness? The images of bloody pavements and people, people who are real human beings, not extras in a film or characters in a play who will be safe and well by the time you turn off the television or leave the room, in pain are the most immediate of shocks. However perhaps more frustrating is the emboldened feeling of helpfulness that comes when the images of others, be they spectators or paramedics, helping those in pain, are flooded across the screen. People can help, people are helping and yet you, on a sofa or in an armchair somewhere far from the scene, cannot.
In the the long term this will be a moment that, like so many other nicks and cuts on the body of American society, defines a city and perhaps a generation for a long time to come. There will be inquiries and inquisitions, blame no doubt and the incandescent hatred of those incapable of accepting whatever conclusions such a process brings. Some will blame the government while the more intolerant will find a group or a race or a religion to hold accountable, covered a multitude in tar and feathers with no rational thought in sight. This is the way that all such acts end, eventually to be an moment in history rather than a full blooded human event. Yet for anyone who was, and I use this word cautiously, lucky enough to witness the event detached yet in real time the chest crushing helplessness must be at all costs remembered. They may only be a pale shadow of the emotions of those who are at the scene but the shock, disgust and maternal desire to reach out and help is a measure of the human consequences of all such events, be they in Boston of Baghdad. It is only by retaining the memory of the raw emotions set loose on watching the devastation that their true horror can be measured. If we can hold onto this perhaps the next time a bomb explodes in a remove corner of the world whose name twists the tongue we will be able to remember what it was like to watch such a thing unfold. Perhaps then some good will come from Boston’s day of torment.