The clutch of yellow balloons drifted slowly into the air, carried ever higher by the breeze.
They had not been released in a moment of celebration, as they should have been. They had not been released when a child lifted his hands to greet an exhausted but jubilant parent, as they should have been. They were released from their mooring on a temporary fence by the blast of an improvised explosive device.
The quick burst of air, the boom of sound, the cut of flying shrapnel – whatever the agent of dislocation, the balloons floated away. They glided quietly up as the scene underneath was pierced with shrieking cries, was littered with fallen bodies, was painted with spilled blood. The instincts of helium matched the instincts of consciousness: run.
Running was expected yesterday on the streets of Boston. The running was supposed to be cardiovascular, in pursuit of professional success or personal bucket-listing. The running was not supposed to be the scramble of self-preservation, the desperate lunging of fear.
We are learning that our expectations only count for so much. We are confronting the reality that even the mundane activities of daily life – going to school, going to church, going to the movies – are subject to fatal destruction. We are hearing that mass killings and unprovoked attacks are the price we pay for “freedom.”
We are asking why.
Why would someone resort to killing innocent civilians to prove some sick and twisted point? Why are children being sacrificed in this social self-destruction that can only be described as terrorizing? Why is this way of life the one we are resigned to accept?
We operate every day out of a basic foundation of trust. It is rarely acknowledged and hardly appreciated, but nearly every action we take assumes some level of faith that those around us will act as they should. We drive cars trusting that on-coming drivers will not purposefully barrel into us, we enter public spaces trusting that no one will attack us, we eat food trusting that it has not been poisoned.
The events of Boston, and Newtown, and Aurora shake that foundation. They threaten to dismantle any willingness to trust. Without a willingness to trust, we are in many ways without the capacity to function in a society that depends on interaction, on shared spaces, on surrendering control.
It would be easy to succumb to the fear and the second-guessing were it not for the fact that it would require a general unplugging from everyone and everything around us. Unless we are prepared to live in the way of the standard-bearing manifesto writer – a self-sustaining, back-to-the-earth type subsistence in some isolated setting – then we have to find a way to nurture our faith in each other.
Tragedy is a cruel protagonist. Even as it taunts us with unsettling questions about whether there is a way forward, it operates as the scenery through which the way forward is blazed. While shrapnel and nails and ball bearings were lodging in legs and foreheads, strangers were rushing into a blast site to tie off wounds with lanyards. While casualties were undergoing amputations, runners were leaving the finish line to donate blood. While visitors were displaced because of a lockdown, citizens were opening their doors. While evil spoke from the shadows, good spoke in the public communities of social media, in the embraces of families, in the bravery of first responders.
We bring tragedy upon each other, but we achieve triumph with each other. It is not just triumph over a named enemy, although it is that too. It is triumph over doubt and despair. We are our own worst enemies, but we are also our own and only earthly salvation.
For every picture of horror, for every child killed or injured, for every life irreparably altered, we can only take comfort in numbers. Where there was one or a small number of bombers, there were throngs of policemen and fire fighters and medics rushing to help. Where there were two bombs, there were countless prayers, professions of solidarity, and expressions of love. Where there was darkness in one city, there was light in another. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” the projection read. “Only light can do that.” Signed “NY Loves Boston,” written in the script of the cities’ famous rivals.
What happened in Boston yesterday reminds us that the only rivalry worth attending to is the one between good and bad. We can move forward knowing that explosions of evil are attention-grabbing precisely because we are mostly, quietly, reliably good. We can live not because we know someone will help us if we are about to die, but because we know nearly everyone wants us to live.
Our trust in each other is merely the way forward. It is not the antidote to pain, it cannot erase what has already happened, and it does not even promise that terror will not strike again. But it is what we must cling to, even as it threatens to slip from our hands.
Just like those yellow balloons, whose strings could not hold.