The 9/11 attacks undid our sense of personal security. Arguably, we had been a bit spoiled, presuming a level of protection from foreign enemies we had wrongly assumed would never take the risk of challenging American power. It was a life-changing moment, not just for the way we handle our national security, but for the way we deal with our individual security.
The Boston bombings were less deadly, but in a way more profoundly unsettling. For what the event did was to threaten something very central to the American psyche: our desire to believe in the basic goodness of human beings.
This is not to say that people in other countries aren't generous or trusting; they are. But one thing that has struck me, after living abroad for five years and traveling all over the world, is how uniquely optimistic Americans are. This is the land of second chances and new beginnings. We may have fewer entrenched traditions than older countries, but that is also our strength, as we are not tied to antiquated and sometimes unjust ways of living.
And there is a fundamental sunniness to the American spirit – something I sometimes got teased about when I was living overseas (some of my European friends found it a little guileless, although in a charming way). I can't bear to see the photos of the three people, including a sweet-looking little boy, who were killed. It is almost more unbearable to know that someone could commit such an act of destruction and horror for no other reason than to prove that he (or she, or they) can.
I want so much to believe it was a mentally ill person who did this. It wouldn't make the outcome any different, but I could cling to the idea that well people – anywhere in the world – don't do things like this.
I am thankful, then, for the example set by regular Bostonians after the awful attack. They ran to help the victims, knowing they themselves might be endangered by another potential explosion. Runners who had already completed more than 26 miles kept running, heading to the hospital to give blood. People took complete strangers into their homes.
In Washington, two voices not normally associated with each other invoked this spirit. Said President Obama to whomever did the attack, "if you want to know who we are, what America is, how we respond to evil – that's it. Selflessly. Compassionately. Unafraid."
And House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia delivered a lovely statement, reiterating America's determination to find and prosecute the murderer or murderers, but adding, "The Boston Marathon is a symbol of so much of what is great about America. It honors personal fortitude and perseverance. Let it continue to be a symbol of fortitude and perseverance for Boston and for our entire nation." And let us continue to believe, however much effort it takes, in the common decency and courage of our friends and neighbors.