This week, three people in Boston became terrorism’s latest fatalities. We don’t know yet if the bomber or bombers selected the Massachusetts state holiday Patriots’ Day for the attack in order to send a political message in particular or if it was just a large crowd at a public event that proved irresistible to those responsible. Was it a statement about American patriotism? A nod to previous events on this date in past years? Or, was convenient opportunity — what with a large milling crowd about — to blame?
Speculation immediately rushed to the obviously political: it was a violent Patriots’ Day protest timed, like that for the anniversary of the siege at Waco, because of the bomber’s leanings. Of course, Timothy McVeigh targeted the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 as a show of solidarity with the Branch Davidians raided in 1993. Later, two students at Columbine High School in Colorado would go on a shooting spree, and the record they left behind indicated a preoccupation with the events at Waco and Oklahoma City. Their bloody eruption was similarly slated for mid-April. Just six years separated the three tragedies, and they have become linked in our public consciousness for their violence, their anger, and deadliness.
These previous incidents serve as context for the Boston bombing — infusing it with meaning before there is even any semblance of understanding to be had. Were it a lone event, it would be met with the confusion and grief of Oklahoma City or the indignation over Waco. But, there is a past, and having been here before, we have fear and expectations. We have experience with this grief.
Immediate responses acknowledged this history. The connection in timing with Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado — western tragedy moved east and colored further by the trauma of Fall, 2001 — invariably arose. On Twitter, in news reports, online, and in conversation, observers cited this historical combine. It is now a list. It’s a macabre tally: here are our relevant deadly massacres. We can itemize it now, our terror. It’s a frightful grouping of like horrors.
I have carried the Oklahoma City bombing with me for eighteen years now. It’s become a permanent part of my life. It changed me. Being so defining and unique to me, my immediate reaction is resisting the listing. Others may want to combine these events, but they do not go together for me. In my experience, there is the One and then there are the others. It feels belittling to fuse them — to act like they were the same. No, I think. In scope, in tone, in perpetration, Oklahoma City still stands alone. In the crudest of measurements — the body count — it eclipses the others. In civic devastation and impact on public access and security, it is again the greater. As an internal attack on our government, it remains unique.
I am certain that my resistance to combining these events is defensive too. I am protective of my sorrow and insulted at attaching it to “lesser” tragedies. I have a bias, and I know it. You can’t be fair when it comes to your broken heart — and I don’t believe you ought to be. Still, after thoughtful consideration, the Murrah bombing must be the greater woe: it was, tragically, our introduction to an age of terrorism.
Truthfully, as similar as they are in our minds, none of the three are much like the others. The dark motives behind them differed, as did the targets and tools. It is a kind of dishonor borne of laziness and convenience to connect them. It simplifies and, worse, obfuscates, and this is the opposite of knowledge. We are temporal in nature, though, and the timeline rules our understanding. We can resist it; our spirits can rage against it; but, the fact of the matter is that we have known these several tragedies in our experience. We have been wounded by each, and we revisit them annually as dictated by the calendar. April is heavy with sorrow — large and small, multiple and grotesque. Unavoidably, there is a list.