In Boston, one act of evil, thousands of acts of humanity

An 8-year-old boy was among the three people killed and at least 176 people injured, many severely, by a pair of explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday. According to The Boston Globe, the boy, Martin Richard, was with his mother and sister, who were also seriously injured. Krystle Campbell, 29, a restaurant manager who was watching the
race with a friend, was also killed. A pair of brothers each lost a leg. Doctors reported that dozens of others had been wounded by some kind of shrapnel — small nails and ball bearings or BBs — that had become embedded in their flesh.

The evil that would lead someone to inflict such indiscriminate pain and cruelty is nearly impossible to imagine. That it was accompanied by no claim of responsibility makes it all the more incomprehensible. Was it related in some way to the federal income tax deadline, Massachusetts' Patriots Day holiday, the anniversary of the Waco raid or the Oklahoma City bombing? Was it an act of foreign terrorism? Or was it utterly random malevolence?

The federal, state and local authorities in Boston have done well to avoid jumping to conclusions, and the American people would be well advised to do the same. Early reports indicate that officials have questioned a Saudi national who was injured in the blasts and have searched his apartment in the nearby suburb of Revere. But it's worth remembering that in the attack to which this bears the most similarity, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing, authorities incorrectly named a security guard, Richard Jewell, as a person of interest, destroying his reputation before eventually identifying and capturing the real perpetrator, Eric Rudolph.

President Barack Obama today said the attack is being treated as "an act of terrorism," though it's not clear whether it really is. To call it "terrorism" implies that it is part of a systematic campaign of violence designed to achieve some purpose. We simply do not know whether that is the case.

Without question, however, this attack was terrifying. Its suddenness, its violence, its indiscrimination inevitably frighten us. Boston police were mobilized to provide security for the marathon and had swept the streets for explosives before the event, something that had not been routine pre-Sept. 11. The area where the attacks took place was blanketed with cameras and filled with thousands of witnesses. If we are not secure in such an environment, can we ever be?

The terrible truth is that an individual or small group bent on mayhem is exceedingly difficult to stop. It has always been that way. What has changed is the immediacy with which we experience an event like this. We see the blood-soaked photos not the next morning in black and white on the cover of a newspaper but almost immediately, in gruesome color, on our computer screens and on the telephones we carry in our pockets — not just one image but hundreds. We can page through an avalanche of information, some of it true, some not, that spills out of Twitter and Facebook. We can watch the video of the explosion itself, shot by a runner approaching the finish line, in a seemingly endless loop on cable TV news.

Lost in that overload of horror is another truth. More than 23,000 people set out from Main Street in Hopkinton, Mass., on Monday morning on a 26.2-mile run to downtown Boston in what was for most the culmination of months or years of dedication. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the course to celebrate the efforts of complete strangers. After the explosions, police, firefighters, emergency medical workers and good Samaritans rushed to the scene to render aid. Bostonians opened their homes to runners who were stranded, hungry, tired and scared.

Most likely, these attacks were the work of an individual or a small group, perhaps a few dozen people at most. Millions of times as many people today are praying for Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell and the others who were killed and injured. We cannot comprehend what would lead someone to commit an act so monstrous as this. But we can comprehend the outpouring of love and concern that it inspired.

We will tighten security. We will, as the Boston police chief put it, go to the ends of the Earth to find whoever was responsible. We will return for the 118th running of the Boston Marathon next year. But as we look back on this tragedy, what we should remember most is not the evil that preceded it but the humanity that followed.

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