This was a violent, disheartening week in the United States. A town called West, Texas was knocked down by an explosion at a fertilizer plant that claimed at least a dozen lives and injured hundreds of others. Survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary School and other massacres watched with broken hearts as the U.S. Senate voted to do nothing about gun safety.
But these events were surpassed by the suffering inflicted on Boston and its marathon. It began with terrorism at the finish line, where bystanders were killed and grievously wounded, as were runners trying to complete the race. As we went to press, there was more: a campus police officer murdered at MIT, gun battles, a metropolitan-wide lockdown, and rampant fear.
This incident stung us for obvious reasons, but also because, as Governor Deval Patrick reminded us, “Massachusetts invented America.” Even at a time when the United States is so disunited, Massachusetts with its special place in America’s history and civic ideals was also able to connect us and bring us closer together.
Starting when we learned something was horribly wrong on Boylston Street, there were stories of women and men rising to their better selves; Samaritans coming to the aid of strangers; Cuba and other nations expressing their condolences; reporters and others insisting that lies be brought to heel with the truth, because facts, like the size of the casualty count, matter, and because no victim (and no nation) should be wrongfully accused of committing or supporting terrorism.
In his eternal inaugural address, President John Kennedy, a son of Massachusetts, brought the Cold War to the center of his foreign policy, when he said “Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas.” But, he also said, just a few sentences later, “let us begin anew – remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
Fifty years ago, as Peter Kornbluh explains (behind the pay wall in The Nation), the Kennedy administration made a diplomatic approach to Cuba’s government that resulted in Cubans imprisoned in the U.S. and Americans, including CIA agents, behind bars in Cuba returning to their homes. He offers this example of James Donovan’s ‘metadiplomacy’ to show how normal relations between the U.S. and Cuba are possible, when we do not fear to negotiate.
Civility is not weakness. There are prisoners still left to be freed, a terrorism policy that must be applied based not on politics but the facts, lessons to be learned from the displays this week of humility and humanity, public officials who must rise to their better selves. Boston reminds us: this work can truly be our own.