What history should record of the Boston bombings

Just as memorable as the Boston bombings was the shared, collective response. Yet the focus remains on divisions, such as classifying the bombers by their background and motives. Isn't the display of shared humanity just as important?

AP Photo
A moment of silence in honor of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings is observed April 22 on Boylston Street near the race finish line, exactly one week after the tragedy.

Perhaps more than recent mass killings in America, the Boston Marathon bombings caused quite a common and massive response – of togetherness.

In the days after the bombings, federal, state, and local police as well as local residents displayed incredible cooperation in the capture of the suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Thousands of videos, tweets, and other bits of information from citizens came together in a wealth of evidence and reporting.

Then thousands of people turned out for a healing service held by multiple faiths and attended by three levels of government – the mayor, the Massachusetts governor, and President Obama.

And on the one-week anniversary of the blasts, throngs of Boston-area residents joined in a moment of silence near the bomb site and elsewhere. People are still bonding in a “Boston Strong” campaign, such as soliciting donations for the victims and their families.

These displays of a shared humanity, however, haven’t received nearly as much attention as speculation over how different the Tsarnaev brothers were from the people they attacked. The two have become categorized either as disgruntled immigrants, jihadists, loners, or assorted other psychological “types.” For journalists and politicians, this “us versus them” divide is an easy sell while the other news – the collective response – is more fleeting and perhaps even boring. 

For David Cannadine, a Princeton University historian and the author of 14 books, this sort of fixation on divisions is a big problem. In his latest book, “The Undivided Past,” the professor takes to task a tendency among scholars and others (not least the media) to focus on the “allegedly impermeable divides” between people. He pleads that we focus more on the sweep of history that shows just how united we all are.

His main point lies in the subtitle – “humanity beyond our differences” – as well as in his summation: “humanity is still here.”

Historians, journalists, and political leaders often ignore the fact that most people do not live out their lives in a clash of identities, he says. While people certainly have differences, their commonality is an enduring norm, reflected in their inherent worth and dignity. “Historically, there is quite a lot of good news,” he states.

Mr. Cannadine doesn’t ignore the prevalent groupings of people, many of which do play a role in history. But he challenges historians who easily divvy up humanity into parts, mainly by race, nationality, class, gender, religion, and even “civilizations.” These identities, he illustrates with many examples, change over time or aren’t as solid as made out to be.

And easy classifications that are seen as inevitable can also easily lead to animosities. Just witness how often political parties divide up voters by demographics and then find issues to incite one group against another. Yet to many voters, they don’t see themselves that way.

His thesis is not new. He cites like-minded writers such as Maya Angelou (“we are more alike, my friends/ than we are unalike”) and V.S. Naipaul (“that missing large idea of human association”). But his grand and global history shows how collaboration has been far more the norm than conflict. The result has been progress for humankind.

Looking at events like the Boston bombings through this connective lens more than the glasses of polarity just might do better at preventing such tragedies. An ever-more inclusive America might bring the disaffected and detached “lone wolves” in from the periphery. 

Divisions that create a fear of “the other” cannot be ignored. But neither should the historical record of what people share. Terrorists might just get the message.

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