The problem is that, when we call it the same thing, our response tends to become homogenous, too. And year after year, decade after decade, we respond by turning criminal or political atrocities into “terror,” a vague challenge to our day-to-day comfort. So the first response, then, is to defiantly keep being ourselves. For a century, that has been the first answer.
Listen to Barack Obama, on Wednesday: “These small, stunted individuals who would destroy instead of build, and think somehow that makes them important – that’s what they don’t understand: Our faith in each other, our love for each other, our love for country, our common creed that cuts across whatever superficial differences there may be – that is our power,” he said. “That’s why a bomb can’t beat us … We don’t cower in fear. We carry on.”
Or to Tony Blair on the afternoon of July 7, 2005: “They are trying to use the slaughter of innocent people to cow us, to frighten us out of doing the things we want to do, of trying to stop us going about our business as normal … When they try to intimidate us, we will not be intimidated, when they seek to change our country, our way of life by these methods, we will not be changed.”
You can hear the same speech, almost word for word, in the 48 hours after almost any such atrocity – before the identities of the assailants are known, when we need a message to fill the silence.
I believe this habit began on the morning of Sept. 18, 1920. The day before, a bomb blast surprisingly like the one that hit the Boston Marathon struck the busy streets of Lower Manhattan. It was the first time in history that a bomb had been used in quite this way, and The New York Times pulled a word out of obscurity to describe the act.
“The most reasonable theory of the explosion is that it was intended as a terrorizing demonstration. It is not the first. It surely will not be the last,” the Times wrote in an editorial bearing the then-novel headline “To Put Down Terrorists.” The editorialists then set to work employing a set of phrases to become clichés:
“In what spirit and by what means are we to face and overcome the stealthy and lethal attempts to overthrow the established order by deeds of violence and horror? There should be no yielding to panic fear. That would be to make the assassins believe that they had half succeeded. They aim to intimidate. The community must show that it is not to be intimidated. … By keeping cool and firm we begin their defeat.”
What caused this new concept, and this new language of defiance, to enter our lexicon so quickly? There had been plenty of bombings before 1920. But dynamite had to this point been used only to target specific individuals, or institutions, or buildings, or forces (such as the police) – not entire societies. Bomb attacks were aimed at “the enemy” in an undeclared ideological civil war, and attacks were designed to avoid bystanders.
But on the morning of Sept. 17, as the bomb-laden horse carriage pulled up to J.P. Morgan at Wall Street and Broad in Manhattan, bystanders were the only intended target. The blast, to the numerous First World War veterans who witnessed it, resembled the worst form of warfare: “For many,” writes historian Michael Martinez, “the devastation strained credulity. Body parts and shrapnel seemed to be everywhere. A few victims, still conscious and experiencing excruciating pain, cried out for help. At least one man engulfed in fire screamed ‘Save me! Save me! Put me out!’ A woman eviscerated by flying shards was still alive, but she died when rescuers tried to move her. Witnesses reported watching a woman with no arms cry for help.”
And then, as people plunged into dazed silence, the traditional response emerged. First, the utterance of “terrorism” in The Times and a score of other voices. Then the defiant return to normality: J.P. Morgan’s bank workers all showed up the next morning, many with their heads and hands bandaged from the flying glass, in a show of solidarity that amazed even the banker’s family.