How We React

April 17, 2013

I have a lifelong habit, when I hear about a tragedy, of imagining the least bad outcome.

In college, someone told me there had been an explosion on the space shuttle, and I pictured a small fire on board.

When I heard a federal office building in Oklahoma City was bombed, I imagined some broken glass near the doorway.

Someone interupted a meeting I was in to say that a plane flew into the World Trade Center, and I thought of a Cesna. Then  they said another plane hit the other tower -- I knew something was really wrong, but still assumed it was a small plane.

And this week, even after watching the video, I could only conceive of runners being knocked down. When I heard there were a hundred or more casualties, I imagined scrapes from flying glass. I only realized the nature of things when I saw the headline, "So many people without legs."

It was the sort of horrifying realization that stays with anyone who reads it. Like the images of World Trade Center jumpers.

This bombing was small by global standards. It was small by this week's standards, compared to the 56 killed in a Baghdad explosion. But in both cases, the bomber meant to spread fear, and in both cases he succeeded.

The only value in these events -- and it is a small compensation for those who are suffering -- is that they show us that reasonably decent people far outnumber bad ones. We're all flawed, impure, self-indulgent beings, but very few of us would embrace the kind of brutality inflicted on Boston or Baghdad.

Our reactions also say a lot about us as individuals. My instinct to downplay the initial reports suggests some difficulty dealing with unpleasant realities. More broadly, most of us react to these events with mourning and reflection -- while a smaller number use them to feed conspiracy theories, or political aims, or to push the cycle of revenge. The more of us there are in the former category, the less the bombers get what they were after.

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