If a friend from Ottawa who was running in the Boston Marathon had been just a few minutes slower, she would have run past when the bomb went off. If my wife had gone down to Lenscrafters in Copley Square, as she planned to do, she might have been there when the windows blew in. If one family who came to watch had moved just 20 feet one way or the other, their eight-year-old son might be alive today and the mother and daughter might not be fighting to recover in hospital.
If … if … if only.
The decisions involved hardly qualified as decisions and they made the difference between life and death.
We knew this about fate. We all know that tiny judgments can kill you. It is why we are anxious parents. Children are innocent about fate. Our work as adults is never to be innocent, while preserving theirs as long as we can.
It won't be easy to explain to them why someone could feel entitled to put explosives in a bag and leave it to detonate among complete strangers. It is the sense of entitlement, the sense of being justified that is so hard to understand. It is a good thing really that we can't explain malignity like this, because it will never move into the realm of the taken for granted.
We will never get used to it. We can live with fate, but not with terrorism, with humans acting as random dispensers of life and death. The marathon attacks were a particularly vile form of soft-target barbarism. What is sickening is the awareness that there is someone, very close by, who couldn't care less about you but wants to make some point, political or otherwise, and to do so has decided to play God with your life.
We will never accept this kind of fate, because we cannot live without faith in ourselves. Terror seeks to destroy much more than our trust in others. It works its way into our heads by making us mistrust our own judgment. We know now that one unwitting decision can put us in the path of the shrapnel.
But we also know that we can't keep second-guessing our judgment or the judgment of those charged to protect us. We have no choice but to put our trust in fate. We have to put our trust in each other. Terrorist attacks remind us what we owe each other and how deeply coded inside us this is. You could see the instincts of solidarity firing up in the streets of Boston on Monday: strangers holding strangers, applying tourniquets, pulling down barricades to get at bloodied victims.
The marathon will run next year. The crowds will come out next year. There will be quiet defiance, as there should be. "Who do they think we are?" will be a common thought. Furious and bitter nihilism is always there, at the edge of the light, at the edge of the city. There is always someone with a grievance who thinks they are entitled to decide who lives and dies. They do not prevail, because there are simply too many people who won't let their lives be decided in this way, who have no other option in life but the conditional, limited, but vital trust of strangers that we must maintain if we are to get on with living.
Yet those like me, who are in Boston and are safe and sound, feel mournful stoicism today, as if life in general was harder and darker than we thought, as if we apprehend, once again, that maintaining the common life, the circle of trust that keeps us free, that allows us to make small decisions with some degree of confidence, just got more difficult. We shall prevail, we always do, justice will be done – we believe – and justice is more important to us now, because the fabric of life has been torn asunder and must be made whole again.
Michael Ignatieff teaches at the Munk School at the University of Toronto and at Harvard's Kennedy School.