Unity amid carnage

After more than 11 years, the fear is fresh but familiar: a shocking new attack has reminded us that no matter where we gather, someone somewhere wants to tell us we truly are not free. On a spring day at the Boston marathon — warmed by the big-ness of strangers cheering strangers, of endurance and of triumph — a small act shattered lives with explosions designed to kill, or at least to destroy the legs that had enabled people to travel great distances in body and in soul.

This time, the killer or killers are silent, not gloating or taking credit for their crime as we work to find the justice we so impatiently crave. And now poisonous letters and suspicious packages sent to the President and U.S. lawmakers, though likely unrelated, are eerily similar to the anthrax attacks in the mail that followed the airplane attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.  We have all remembered that old worry that a new and different attack could come anywhere anytime — we just haven’t felt it in so long.

But what is also familiar is unity. An attack on Patriots’ Day revealed that patriotism didn’t waver amid the blood and screaming, the smoke and sirens, that it remains impervious to backpacks full of BB gun pellets and nails. So many people gave blood hospitals had to eventually turn away donations, strangers provided victims places to sleep in Boston on Monday night and offers to help in countless ways came from all over the country.

It is encouraging that Washington, D.C., did not become the exception. Throughout the many thwarted attacks since 9/11, Republicans and Democrats have treated terror as fair game in ongoing political warfare. Even the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last Sept. 11 — when U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others lost their lives — became an issue in the presidential election campaign. But this time an attack came in the midst of a remarkable return of bipartisanship in Congress in which both parties are working together on immigration reform, gun legislation and budget policy. The outcome is unknown, but the process is promising for the first time in years. And even as President Obama initially failed to characterize the Boston attack “terrorism” — though it clearly was — his critics in Congress who have complained loudly that the president denies the full extent of the terrorist threat have largely stayed quiet, save for Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who used the occasion to stoke opposition to the immigration debate. So far so good.

What is different from the days, weeks and months that followed 9/11 is that people have worked hard to keep us safe for nearly 12 years and have largely succeeded. We cannot be protected from every attack, and one like this was expected, which is why the Department of Homeland Security has been working with police forces across the nation — including Boston’s — to respond to any attack, especially those involving improvised explosive devices. They will continue to do so. And open public celebrations, competitions and concerts (i.e. “soft targets”) will remain higher risks. We will all have to work individually on behalf of our collective security. Now we look at pictures of a bag that was actually a bomb, sitting in plain sight at the curb, and realize someone most likely was surrounded by people when they planted it there.

It matters not whether the marathon murderer is one or many, foreign or domestic. In the face of any threat to our freedom, we must remain vigilant and unified, with eyes wide open, never complacent or divided, knowing there will never be a finish line.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.