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National Guard soldiers adjust a memorial banner at the corner of Clarendon and Boylston Streets, Tuesday, April 16, 2013. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

So how much more worried will we be this time? How much more uneasy will we feel as we go about our normal lives? The bombing attack at the Boston Marathon has again reminded us that we are not as safe as we’d like to think we are, and forced us to confront the reality that there are angry, violent people out there who want to kill vulnerable, defenseless people, like us.

Was this the act of foreign anti-American extremists, like those who turned airplanes into weapons on September 11, 2001? Or was it the rage of domestic anti-government types, like Timothy McVeigh and his accomplices who detonated a truck bomb outside the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people and injuring 680? Monday was, after all, Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, a holiday commemorating the start of the Revolutionary War, when people with “free and fiercely independent spirits,” as President Obama put it, were ready to act out their anger at an oppressive government.

It is random, unpredictable, and so easy to do. Against all that uncertainty, we feel powerless to protect ourselves and our loved ones. That is terrifying.

Or does it really matter who did it, or why? Maybe what matters most to our sense of vulnerability is just to be reminded of it. Terrorism works precisely because it can happen anywhere, anytime, to anybody, and by anyone. It is random, unpredictable, and so easy to do. Against all that uncertainty, we feel powerless to protect ourselves and our loved ones. That is terrifying.

And terrorism catches us off guard. It rips us harshly and suddenly out of our comfort and complacency, calling from our subconscious the always lurking — but mostly suppressed — truth that we are never truly safe.

A friend of mine who was at the finish line to watch her 20-year-old daughter was just yards away from the larger explosion. She wept as she described how quickly everything changed, “We were waiting for Jesse to show up, and then it went from this moment where we were so excited — to this just horrendous event.”

Certainly the details will matter. The specifics of who did it and why give each of these attacks their own unique emotional impact. McVeigh and his right wing militia partners killed 19 children and injured dozens more by placing their bomb outside a day care center. The scale of 9/11 and the images of the burning, collapsing towers were horrific. Monday’s bombings were uniquely shocking because they came during a big civic celebration, one of those festive public parties when all differences between people melt away and we celebrate a rare moment of happy unity.

A TV reporter put it this way, “It was the perfect day. It was a showcase of everything that is good. And then in a moment… it was a moment of the most terrible possibility realized. If this isn’t safe, what is?”

The details become significant as each of us tries to calibrate: Could that happen to me? To my loved ones? An attack on a symbolic date makes attending other large gatherings on symbolic days feel scarier. Attacks in urban areas scare city dwellers more than those who live in small towns. We look for patterns in the details that help us gauge just how vulnerable we personally might be.

Anytime we see smoke rise as ambulances carry away the dead and injured, we are reminded that no matter how long the odds, it really can happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone of us.

And of course we want to know, need to know, the details of each attack because understanding makes us feel safer — gives us the sense we can prevent similar attacks in the future. Indeed there might have been more of these attacks but for the investigation of all those earlier episodes that helped authorities thwart recent attempts. But then something like this happens, and it reminds us of how false our sense of security actually is.

As someone who studies risk, I understand that statistically, the risk of terrorism is tiny. Most of the time we’re safe. And even when these horrific attacks occur, in the big picture, the casualties are relatively few. But that doesn’t reduce the fear. Anytime we see smoke rise as ambulances carry away the dead and injured, we are reminded that no matter how long the odds, it really can happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone of us.

As it did after Oklahoma City and 9/11, the acute fear will fade. It always does. We can’t live our lives on constant high alert. But it won’t ever completely go away. That’s the broader evil of what happened in Boston on Monday. It’s another invasive, corrosive reminder that we are vulnerable, and that we are not, nor can we ever be, as safe as we would wish.

Tags: Boston, Boston Marathon Bombings, Security

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1451162950 Jim Brown

    “we are reminded that no matter how long the odds, it really can happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone of us.”

    Nonsense. All quotes like this do is jack up fear and hopelessness. Terrorism does NOT happen at any time, anywhere, and to anyone of us. As I sit here at my at my computer in a suburb of Boston, my chances of becoming the victim of a terrorist attack are vanishingly small (probably less than being killed by an asteroid falling from the sky or being struck by lightning).

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      i wonder what the end game is of all this fear mongering

      • http://twitter.com/bewisetoday bewisetoday

        Right on, it is fear mongering. Let’s make us, the American public afraid of our own shadows, shall we? That does not sound like the home of the free and the land of the brave. We are free, today. We are brave, today.

        • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

          i have been thinking we need to either start living up to that motto or change it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    “vulnerable, defenseless people, like us.” i guess if you think of yourself like that the terrorists ( or the people who will use your fear to get you to beg to give up your rights or start a war) have already won.
    “But then something like this happens, and it reminds us of how false our sense of security actually is.” yes security is an illusion lets end the stupid expensive opressive TSA and homeland security. i have alsays found the security theater annoying and stupid as well as anyone who thinks its a good idea. neither have caught any terrorists and they erode our rights by their very nature. ben franklin told us security was an illusion and not worth trading our liberty for. people need to grow a pair, relise that you have a better much chance of being struck by lightning and demand the restoration of all of our civil liberties and privacy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    the only thing we have to fear is fear itself

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    there is a congress person on tv saying that now we need to give the police cell phone jammers and even more surviellience. i wonder what other powers we should give the police untill we are safe?

  • http://twitter.com/Jamiefolk45 Jamie Folk

    We make up 5% of the world’s population and have BY FAR the most people in jail. We also spend almost as much as the rest of the world COMBINED on military and security. That scares me far more then any act of terror. What comes of this must be the realization that no matter how much you spend locking people in cages and spying on innocent Americans it can never make us fully secure. So why not try to use that money and take care of mental health issues that are clearly rampant.

  • http://www.facebook.com/samuel.coulbourn Samuel W. Coulbourn

    David, please tell us “why terrorism works”! What did the terrorist achieve? Three people are dead, over 170 wounded, but will we change our behavior to win some goal the terrorist aims for? Your article sounds soft and hopeless, and that’s not who we are.

  • http://twitter.com/bewisetoday bewisetoday

    http://galacticconnection.com/breaking-here-are-pictures-of-the-staging-with-a-double-amputee
    The real reason terrorism works, is that we believe what we see on TV. Special effects have never been better. Was there a real bombing, there? Maybe? Was there special effects thrown in the mix? It’s not all fake, it’s not all real. You have be unemotional in a very emotional event.
    Emotions get stirred up and then we all become “fair game” and become willing to give up our civil liberties way too easily. Yes, let’s not give this kid a fair trial or read him his Miranda rights, right? Wrong, next time, it could be YOU or ME. Let’s keep everything secret and hush-hush, right? WRONG, the American public DESERVES to know the truth of what happened here.
    Let’s let the police take over and become a Police state. Next time, it won’t be a bombing, it just might be some pacifist “dissident” who disagrees with the government and the official stories that are being told.

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