Boston: The Grief and Unrelenting Whys

April 20th, 2013 · 4 Comments · Beyond Gotham

His face was unforgettable. Twenty-seven-year-old Jeff Bauman looked ashen and bewildered, appearing to be in shock, while three people directed and pushed Bauman in a wheelchair, as a New York Times photo showed. Moments before, he had been waiting to cheer his girlfriend when she would cross the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Then the bombs erupted, tearing apart Bauman’s limbs. Hours later, his father, Jeff Bauman Sr., confirmed that his son was horribly injured by seeing Jeff Jr.’s photo on Facebook, after being alerted by a family member, the Times article reported. In a hospital, the younger Bauman had both legs amputated. Now, he will have to learn to walk again.

Bauman is one of the many whose lives changed irrevocably, ripped apart in the seconds that the two bombs exploded on Monday, April 15, on Boston’s Boylston Street. In a short and horrific time, the violence killed 3 people and wounded some 175 others, many of whom were maimed and lost legs. Four days later, following a tense approximately 22-hour manhunt, valiant law enforcement officers arrested bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. His 26-year-old brother and the other suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was shot to death in a confrontation with police some 19 hours before, as CBS and WBZ radio reported. The arrest brought a break and enormous collective relief at one of the most difficult times this historic city has ever experienced.

Surely, the bringing to justice of suspects answers important needs of a civil society, as it restores some sense of order. Yet we are left with the deeper whys, the perplexing questions that remain and never quite go away even when authorities capture, charge, or kill perpetrators, and see that “justice is done.”

The suffering in Boston is immense. It’s devastating and heart-breaking, Vigils have honored the victims – Krystle Campbell, 29; Lu Lingzi, 23; and Martin Richard, 8. In one moment, the angelic-faced Richard – a boy from all reports who was full of spirit and loved to play sports and be outdoors – was watching the race with his family. Suddenly, following the bombings, he was dead. Martin’s younger sister, Jane, lost her leg, and his mother, Denise, underwent surgery for a brain injury, CBS News reported. How is the father, Bill Richard, able to stand up and go on? No one can be in his place and know exactly the weight of grief and loss in his heart. Many are reaching out in efforts to support him.

The manhunt had its own toll: An MIT police officer, Sean Collier, 26, died when overtaken by the suspects, and Richard Donohue, 33, a transit police officer, was later critically injured in a shootout with the two brothers. As the media images and words kept conveying the aftermath, we became witnesses to the suffering.

An Attack on Place

In Boston, the bombs killed and maimed people in an act of war and violence during a peaceful event that draws many thousands of runners each year from all over the world. Since 1897, the Boston Marathon has been a race of common humanity, which the city hosts on the Massachusetts holiday of Patriots’ Day. The marathon celebrates every runner as a winner.

The bombings suddenly shattered those joyful moments. Such attacks, whether they have been in Newtown, Columbine, Oklahoma City, London, or Bali, or those of September 11, 2001, show how violence changes lives instantly and brings many people together in suffering, survival, grief, anger, and bewilderment. The attacks strike not only people but places. They have hit schools and public spaces, neighborhoods, and cities that are often beloved or at the very least where citizens feel safe – and they have left scars on streets and in buildings that will remain for a very long time.

Martin Richard

Martin Richard

Perhaps it’s in one particular stunning image of Martin Richard that we see our feelings expressed, as humans sharing the pain violence begets. The photo at school shows Richard, smiling, after a lesson last year on the killing of Trayvon Martin. He is holding a handmade sign that says, “No more hurting people. Peace.” The picture went viral over social media. In many ways, it conveys what so many feel, wanting and imploring for no more violence.

By and large, most people are peaceful. But what do we make of a world with so much violence? The Boston bombings, in the streets at an international event with thousands gathered peacefully, brought to mind the war and attacks in the cities and towns that others in the world live with constantly, in parts of Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, Sudan, and elsewhere. We human beings expect peace in our lives and in our gathering places. When two men bring bombs that they have built into the middle of a crowd and explode them, killing and hurting people, it’s an assault on all that is civil and on the peace that we cherish.

Why Does It Happen?

As I’ve felt so profoundly unsettled like many others in the twin bombings’ aftermath, I’ve reflected on recent occurrences of shocking violence that were similarly troubling. Each exhibited a wanton callousness toward life. Using an assault-type weapon, Adam Lanza, 19, went into a Newtown, Conn., elementary school last Dec. 14, opened fire, and massacred 26 children and educators. That same week, on Dec. 16 in New Delhi, India, a group of men attacked a woman, Jyoti Singh Pandey, and her male companion on a bus – the attackers included the bus driver – and repeatedly gang-raped the woman and tortured her with a metal bar. The victim died two weeks later of internal injuries.

Some cases have involved animals, who, like children, are so vulnerable. In early January north of Houston, someone shot a dog repeatedly in the face using a shotgun. This person left the dog, who had massive wounds from hundreds of pellets, in a garbage bag tied to a fence. A local woman, Tami Augustyn, took the dog to a clinic, saving his life. She subsequently set up a Facebook page and raised thousands of dollars for Buck’s treatment and for other abused dogs. Though each situation differed, for those who committed the actions of depravity any sense of right and wrong had become loosened from its moorings – in other words, it was the very nature of evil.

People often label such people as “nutcases,” “sickos,” “monsters,” and the like, distancing ourselves from them via labels. Indeed, insanity, sickness, and monstrous rage are present. Yet what exactly happens that causes human beings to commit such violence? Why does one child grow up to study medicine and learn how to use his or her hands as a surgeon who heals, while another uses the hands to create bombs and kill? The answers are very individual, though themes emerge.

The capacity for violent action such as that in school shootings and bombings has complex roots. Some ascribe certain behaviors to religious radicalism and focus on that aspect. But how and why do such beliefs become implanted in some human beings who choose to act violently? Not every fanatic wields a bomb. Has someone been nurtured consistently and formed the bonds within family and community that foster self-worth and empathy toward others?

In each case, what is the particular combination of internal and external that produces a murderer who feels nothing in shooting at children or detonating a bomb? We are learning a lot more about the origins of violence through studies of brain chemistry and better understanding of mental illness. We know that we live in a world full of violent programming, games, and images; intense competition that produces haves and have-nots, “in crowds” and out people; ethnic hatreds and constantly warring groups; and ready access to ever more destructive weapons and to resources and information on how to build bombs. In some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised at what happens, though it still shocks and causes untold harm and agony.

The Human Spectrum

In the midst of horror and grief, we consider the capacity for evil within humankind. Yet, many, many people in the Boston area have been personifying courage, bravery, and resilience from the moments the bombings occurred. In the split-seconds of panic when the explosions went off, many chose to run toward those who needed aid and took actions that saved lives. In the days afterward, many helped law enforcement. Jeff Bauman, while still in intensive care, provided a description of one suspect to the FBI, which assisted investigators in winnowing their focus while poring through videos, according to Bloomberg News. His life force remained strong despite losing both legs and suffering so much. We count on some balance that shifts toward virtue, goodwill, and heroism.

In such times, we, too, must reflect and be peace and strength together, especially if we are to live up to the words on Martin Richard’s handwritten poster. My prayers and thoughts continue to be with those whose lives have been so changed and torn by the tragedy of April 15. May those who feel grief and who are healing find strength, solace, and support, especially at their darkest hours.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • gerald berke

    That was a wonderfully written piece… thank you. So very well done.

    Given a question, the mind is compelled to answer… it may or may not be on target, but it will answer.

    We live in a lovely balanced web of homeostasis, where the “devil’s imp” may introduce frightening, unsettling, destructive thoughts but they are not performed. Our pets don’t bite, we don’t injure little things, we do not take advantage… that’s the web we live in. And there is vengeance that will build up and break that balance, and it is a part of our nature. It is the measure life has for dealing with the rain of blows that fall on us but no single offense is enough, no opportunity for a measured reply exists.

    And then there is the outburst that seems so perfectly sensible…this we say is for the outrage visited upon me and mine…this is for the steady raining drumbeat of offenses visited on me for which I could not reply but here is the result of the accumulation of those injuries… real injuries, excluding the vengeance of the instance to imagined acts… participation in this peaceful homeostasis presumed healthy creatures. Otherwise, all bets are off… we are reminded that might will not make right, and that vengeance will attempt to level the field.

  • gerald berke

    My first comments did not spend nearly enough time on your writing… I’ve reread it several times… very thoughtful, very peaceful and kind. It is calming and moves this reader away from violence…

    • Susan DeMark


      You’ve said a lot here, and I’ve read your comments over a number of times. Each actor and situation in these horrible acts of violence has so many jigsaw puzzle pieces, when it comes to piecing together how this happens.

      I’m quite grateful for your kind response to the essay and also very happy if you have found the writing to be peaceful and calming.

      As I expressed, the bombings spark perplexing questions about what tips over some human beings into such a cutoff of moral and emotional linkage and responsibility to fellow human beings. Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking answers!


  • gerald berke

    The notion of a purpose of vengeance comes from a reading a few years ago “Nature via Nurture” by Matt Ridley, about social anthropology and human organization, genetics and the like. More recently, there was a more popular writing in the New York Times I think about the role of vengeance, why that is part of our hyper social human organization. We are reminded that we can get away with our transgressions sometimes, for a while, but it may be adding up in some complex way and is a “rational” and predictable response — and there are things we can do to defuse the buildup…for instance, real apologies and sympathies and attempts to repair damages.

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