April 28, 2013

David Rohde: Boston shows how to respond

After the bombings, compassion and tolerance hold as much sway as anger and defiance.

BOSTON - There is no right way to react to a terrorist attack.

Oklahoma City rebuilt after Timothy McVeigh's 1995 truck bomb attack on the federal government. Atlanta moved on following anti-abortion activist Eric Rudolph's 1996 bombing of the Olympics. And New York displayed staggering resiliency following the 9/11 attacks.

Boston, though, may have set a new standard.

Customers swarmed restaurants and businesses on Boylston Street, the site of the marathon bombings, after police reopened the area on Wednesday.

There is overwhelming pride here in the public institutions -- police, hospitals, government officials and news outlets (forgive my bias) -- that performed so well in crisis. And there has been no major backlash against the city's Muslim community since two Chechen-American brothers were identified as the prime suspects.

There have been missteps, of course. The FBI apparently failed to follow up aggressively enough on warnings from Russian officials about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother accused in the attack. Police fired on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, his younger brother, when he was unarmed, wounded and hiding in a boat. And a transit police officer who was gravely wounded in a firefight with the brothers may have been mistakenly shot by a fellow officer.

But the brave, charitable and tolerant spirit of this city so soon after the attack is an extraordinary example for us all.

There is mourning here but little sense of fear. There is anger but a realization that terrorism is a reality for communities worldwide. And there is a determination to not allow attacks on civilians to limit, paralyze or divide this city.

"You can't blame everybody for a few radical lunatics with hatred in their hearts," said Neil Tanger, a 65-year-old longtime Boston Marathon volunteer, who choked back tears when he visited the site of the bombings Thursday night. "Most of the people who come here come for the opportunity."

Overwhelmed with pride in the city and its people, he said the examples of his immigrant grandfather and World War II veteran father inspired his response.

"We have what we have here because of their commitment to the American dream," he said. "We're not going to give that up because of a few lunatics. We're going to continue to be strong."

Earlier in the day, Thoa Va Neman, a 40-year-old retirement plan administrator and immigrant from Vietnam, was overwhelmed with emotion as she visited the site as well. Last year, she stood at the spot where one of the bombs detonated and cheered for a friend finishing the marathon. This year, Neman stayed at home.

"I thought I would be ready to come down here," she said, struggling to speak.

Neman expressed admiration for Bostonians who friends warned would be aloof, stand-offish and hostile to outsiders when she moved here from Ohio five years ago.

Instead, people obeyed orders from police and showered each other with kindness in the wake of the bombings.

"I thought people on the East Coast would be cold," she said. "They show their warmth in time of need."

Khaled Lottfi, a 47-year-old Moroccan-American taxi driver and 25-year Boston resident, has embarked on a one-man mission to explain his faith to fellow residents.

Lottfi, who is Muslim, prayed in the days after the attacks that the perpetrators would not be Muslim.

After the surviving brother reportedly told investigators that they carried out the attacks to defend Islam, Lottfi started impromptu conversations about his faith with passengers in his taxi who seemed friendly.

"I tell them I'm Muslim and I can't understand it either," Lottfi said. "And they say 'wow' and then they ask questions."

Lottfi, who lived in France but said he felt more tolerance for religious freedom in the United States, said the response from passengers has been overwhelmingly positive. He called the situation tragic and the need to explain his faith painful, but said he was doing "my little part" to ease misconceptions and fear in the city.

"I take a chance and I explain," he said. "They need to hear from a Muslim that I don't condone this thing."

These are early days, of course. Flashes of anger emerge here. The day before images of the Tsarnaevs were released, an unidentified man assaulted a female Syrian doctor wearing a headscarf as she walked her 9-month-old daughter to daycare in the Boston suburb of Malden.

"He said, '(Expletive) you. (Expletive) you Muslims, You are terrorists, you are the ones who made the Boston explosion,' " Hebad Abolaban told the Boston Globe. "I was really, really completely shocked. I didn't know what to do. Then I realized what happened. I was crying and crying."

Neman, the Vietnamese immigrant, called for a stricter immigration system and like many Bostonians, expressed fury at reports that the older Tsarnaev brother received welfare.

One young man visiting the site of the bombings Thursday, who said he was a family friend of one of the victims, called for tighter immigration laws and trying the surviving brother in a military court.

"If they were a scumbag in their own country, why should we let them in ours?" asked the young man, who did not want to be named. "Why is our government prosecuting him (as if he) is one of us, when he obviously isn't?"

The anger is understandable. Bostonians have suddenly joined residents of Kabul, Tel Aviv, Mumbai and Tokyo in living with terrorist attacks. In the past, no one here knew how they might react to a bomb set off in a crowd, a crazed gunman or a poison gas attack.

But this city is responding exactly as it should. The accused are being prosecuted as criminals, which they are. Public institutions are being praised, as they should be. And most people are resisting the attackers' attempt to sow fear, bigotry and division.

While television images show the immediate chaos of attacks, they rarely convey the long-term reaction.

Bostonians are responding in the way average people have around the world when confronted with extremism. They help victims, feel contempt for the perpetrators and vow to not let them win.

I expect massive crowds at next year's Boston Marathon. So does Tanger, the volunteer.

"I'm not afraid, I'm not afraid of the bombers" he said. "I'll be back every year as long as I can walk."

We should learn from, listen to and laud him and his city.

Maine native David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter for The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor.

 

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