Thursday, May 02, 2013

Making Sense of Violence and Terror in Boston

by John Shelby Spong

On Monday, April 15, Patriot’s Day in Boston, Massachusetts, the bomb blasts that occurred near the finish line of the Boston Marathon brought death, mutilation and injury to more than 200 innocent people. By Thursday, the perpetrators of this crime had been identified and the manhunt was on. By Friday, one of the two suspects had been killed in a shootout with police and the other was believed to be hiding in the small suburb adjacent to Boston called Watertown. The entire metropolitan area was under police lock-down for almost 48 hours and a house-to-house search was undertaken.

On that same Friday, as fate or luck would have it, my wife and I were driving to Boston to give a series of lectures that weekend at an event organized jointly by Andover Newton Theological School and the Eliot United Church of Christ. The lectures were to be located in the facilities of the Eliot Church in Newton, Massachusetts, less than a mile from Watertown. The entire metropolitan area of Boston was totally caught up in the trauma of that event. Driving toward Boston, we kept the radio on wondering if we would be allowed into the area in general and into our hotel in particular.

Thirty minutes before we arrived, the second suspect was captured, wounded but alive, hiding under the plastic cover inside a boat, parked on wheels in the backyard of a private house. So we were present to share in the corporate sense of relief in the community. The grief and the fear, which always come when terror removes the community’s sense of security and safety, were palpable. It was a tragedy in which the entire nation shared, indeed in which the entire world shared.
Three stories out of this tragedy tore at my emotions and raised within me the same questions that gripped the people of the world. What is the sense and meaning of evil with which human life must cope and inside which human life is almost always lived? These three stories put a face on the presence of that evil.

First, there was the story of a man named Bill Richard, who ran in the marathon. His wife, Denise, his eight year old son, Martin, and his five year old daughter, Jane, came to cheer their husband and father across the finish line. Bill, like most people his age, was not a championship runner. He crossed the finish line about two hours after the winner. He was, however, elated at his performance and his family, proud of him, wanted to share in his triumph.

Before they could do that, however, there came, it seemed out of nowhere, an explosion. Eight-year old Martin was killed instantly, five-year old Jane was hurt so badly that one of her legs had to be amputated and Denise had received such a blow to the head from the projectiles loosed in the blast that she suffered brain damage, the full extent of which has not yet been determined. All of this tragedy was at the hands of two brothers, unknown to the Richard family, who were motivated by a cause in which the Richards were not involved. Yet in that insane moment, the life of this family was shattered, never to be fully repaired again. First, I tried to look at this tragedy through their eyes; it was enough to bring tears to mine.

The second story came after the suspects had been identified as Tamerlan (age 26) and Dzhokhar (age 19) Tsarnaev, originally from Chechnya, but who had come to this country from Kyrgyzstan with their families about 11 years ago. When the names of the suspects were made known all links to this family were pursued by both the investigators and the press. It appeared that the suspects’ father had recently returned to Kyrgyzstan, leaving his brother, Rusian, as the ostensible head of the family. When this uncle of the suspects was located in Maryland, he agreed to an impromptu press conference on the sidewalk outside his home. It was for him a wrenching experience. Everything he had struggled to build up for himself and his family seemed to have blown up in this tragedy. He clearly was not in sympathy with his nephews’ new, radical religious stance. He referred to his oldest nephew as a “loser.”

Almost at the point of tears, he began to speak, not to the press but to his nephews, “You have brought a shame on this family. You have brought a shame on all Chechnyans.” He knew life would never be the same and he and his family would be stained forever in the minds of all who knew them by this violent act, over which he had no control. So I tried to look at this tragedy through Rusian’s eyes.

The third story that gripped me was the narrative of the two primary perpetrators of this heinous crime, Timerlan and Dzhokhar. Sympathy was hard to muster at that moment, but questions cascaded forth. What motivated them? What cause was so all-consuming that it justified meticulous planning and the preparation of bombs made out of pressure cookers filled with nails and other metal projectiles that would become lethal weapons striking anyone near enough with maiming and killing fury? Why did they feel the need to destroy the lives of people they had never met? What demons possessed them that caused them to devalue human life so totally? What enabled them, when they thought they had escaped unseen, to return to their nearby home and to pal around with their friends during the evening after their deed had been done, as if life were still normal?

What was it like for them when they recognized that their identities were known and that they needed to flee for their lives? In their frantic attempt to escape, they killed a 26-year old Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus policeman in cold blood and then carjacked a Suburban vehicle, forcing its driver to withdraw money from his ATM account to give them the cash they needed. Did they have a destination in mind or were they just fleeing blindly? What did they feel when they engaged in a gun fight with local police in which the older of these two brothers was killed, while the younger brother escaped in their stolen car by running over the body of his brother? What was going on inside this now lone fugitive when the manhunt finally ended with a massive police force surrounding the boat in which he was hiding in the backyard of a Watertown resident? While he was armed with an assault gun this nineteen year old, bleeding from his own wounds, surely knew that death or capture were the only options left to him. What was his state of mind? He was finally captured with no more loss of life and is today under heavy guard while a patient in a Boston hospital.

All around him lives, including his own, were shattered. Human beings are capable of enormous evil. What is the cause? Is there some flaw in human nature, an inescapable “original sin” that causes some to victimize others mindlessly? Is there an alien or demonic power that takes over some of us from time to time, causing us to do things that, left to our own devices, we would presumably never do? Is there something about human life that we do not yet understand? All of these possible explanations have been offered in human history, but none of them seems adequate. Perhaps we are simply less civilized than we like to imagine. Perhaps the elemental laws of the herd are still part of our biological life and, from time to time, they must be served.

A study of all living things reveals that survival is a driving force in biology. Every plant, every tree and every vine is programmed by life itself to maximize its chances of survival. That is the nature, the reality of living things. It is thus also true of every insect, every creature of the sea, every reptile, bird and mammal. Below the level of human freedom, nature drives all living things to seek survival. It is instinctual behavior. Human beings, however, are self-conscious decision makers. We can choose between love and hate, war and peace, cooperation and violence. What drives us to choose hate, war and violence? Is it not still survival? When life feels threatened, will human beings not act in such a way as to maximize their own survival?

The Tsarnaev family has a history of doing just that. When life in Chechnya became so dangerous, they fled to Kyrgyzstan. When Kyrgyzstan became equally dangerous, they became political refugees in America. When they did not fit in, anger grew. When the United States was seen as hostile to Muslim nations in the Middle East, their fears were heightened. Inside Islam they sought protection and meaning in what appeared to them to be a rejecting world. Religion often functions that way. Radicalized religion is always a cover for justifying killing behavior and frequently religion becomes an acceptable channel through which rage finds an outlet. When the rage of being victimized is attached to religion, all manner of destructive behavior can be viewed by believers as acceptable.

Islam is not the only religion to be used this way. Look at what the Christians did to the Jews from the days of the New Testament to the days of the Holocaust. Look at the innocent people burned at the stake as heretics by Christians. Look at the women hanged as witches in Salem, Massachusetts. Look at the religious torture employed by Christian believers against non-believers. Look at the Crusades, organized by the Vatican, which made a virtue out of killing Moslems in the Middle East because their very existence was thought be an affront to Christian sensitivities.

None of this religiously sanctioned activity justifies violent and murderous behavior. What it does do, however, is to free us to see that our survival fears will always find expression in ruthless acts of killing another before those “others” can kill us and that through the ages religion has served to sanitize and perfume this killing behavior.

If Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any other religion is to have continued life then its focus must be on enhancing life, building community and expanding the sense of what it means to be human. Religious devotees must also put an end to demonizing any child of God on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality or religion. Our world is a long way from that goal and organized religion still seems to be part of the problem, not part of the cure. Terror reminds us very painfully of just how shallow are the layers of civilization around us and just how empty is the piety of many of our religious words.


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