It’s been hard to look away from the news since Monday. Ironically, I was writing about violence when the bombs went off in Boston. A special news report came on TV. Then everything stood still.
We were there again—back in that place, the 9/11, 7/7, Madrid, Oklahoma City, Olympic Park place. The place where the sheer weight of horror takes your breath away. The place where nothing seems real, at first.
Reporters can’t ignore news; it drives us. The TV stayed on for hours. I called a friend whose daughter worked so close to the bomb site that she felt the reverb in her office. I exchanged a few tweets with a Boston lesbian I know who was shattered by what had been done to her city.
Like a good reporter, I searched online for answers, but also for meaning and purpose, because events like these propel us to do something. Anything.
A Muslim friend emailed her prayer that it wouldn’t be a Muslim. But it almost didn’t matter. Right away I saw the blaming begin online. "They’ve done it again." "What’s wrong with these people?" "We should start our own jihad against them."
Others noted that this wasn’t the only bombing that day–20 car bombs had gone off in Iraq, leaving 37 dead and 140 injured. Pray for Boston, yes, but pray for all the other victims as well.
An editor asked me to write a piece to post immediately. I tried to think of what to say—my emotions were so raw, it all felt so visceral, it had only been a few hours. I wrote what I knew and what I remembered from covering other acts of terror. I wrote about what it felt like to be in a secret war and not actually know you were on the front line until the bombs blew up in your face.
On Tuesday there was more clarity, but also more anger as details about the victims were revealed. A photo of 8-year-old Martin Richard in his classroom after the Newtown shooting holding a hand-lettered sign on blue construction paper that read "Stop hurting people" hit my inbox. I started to cry. I had that deep, primordial desire to just wail and keen and tear at my own hair. The pain suddenly felt that great. Someone else said to me, "How do people live with this day in and day out in those other places like Syria and Iraq?" How indeed?
All I could think about was that an 8-year-old was dead, his 6-year-old sister had lost a leg and his mother was in critical condition with a severe head injury. The dazed and gutted father–the one they’d come to cheer on as he ran—issued a statement to the media about his son. I could barely fathom his pain.
In the first few hours after the bombing a Saudi national was questioned by police. He’d been at the marathon and had sustained injuries to his hands–injuries police and FBI thought might have come from handling the bombs. It turned out he was just another victim.
Did police profile him? Was his Middle Eastern ethnicity the sole reason he was questioned?
And what of my Muslim friend with her prayers that it please not be a Muslim who set the bombs which killed three people and injured close to 200 more—legs and arms severed by the ball bearings and nails embedded in the pressure cookers that held the explosives. Did she feel like she couldn’t share in the collective grief because her ethnicity made her suspect? Did she feel marginalized even from her own pain?
On February 21, 1997—my birthday, as it happened—Eric Rudolph bombed a lesbian bar in Atlanta, the Otherside Lounge. Rudolph also bombed the Atlanta Olympics and an abortion clinic. He killed three people and injured more than 150. He was sentenced to life in prison. Rudolph had an anti-gay, anti-abortion agenda. The bombings were, he said, to stop promotion of homosexuality and abortion.
I thought of Rudolph on April 15 because the Boston bombings were similar: small bombs constructed for maximum damage.
When monstrous things happen, we personalize it.
In that first 24 hours after the Boston bombings, heroes emerged: a doctor who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan had run the marathon and then cared for victims. A man who had lost his son in Iraq, saving lives. There were a few dozen of these stories that reminded us of humanity and empathy in the face of inimitable cruelty and inchoate violence.
But undergirding those tales of heroism and kindness lay the dark side of retribution and vengeance, the need to blame someone, preferably someone marginal, of color, foreign, Other.
A colleague sent me a link to an Associated Press story about a Jordanian terrorist who had celebrated the bombings. It was brief and seemed pointless. I scrolled down to read the comments. There were 1,159 on a story only a few paragraphs long.
The comments were vile. After the first few, terrorism and homosexuality, Islam and bestiality were all rolled into one thing that should be destroyed. It was frightening.
Then the Westboro Church declared the reason for the bombings was God’s punishment for "fag marriage." The Church’s leader, Fred Phelps, said the group would protest at Boston funerals.
LGBT people were suddenly out there like my Muslim friend or the Saudi national. Culpable for something we hadn’t done. Guilty until proven innocent.
If LGBT people take away anything from this senseless, monstrous act of terrorism it should be that: a reminder that as marginalized people we are never safe, we are always in the cross-hairs of someone’s bigotry and rage. There are the angry comments on a website that are ugly, but don’t seem dangerous. But then there’s Phelps and finally, Eric Rudolph.
Our truest allies in times like these–times of undeclared war that cannot be defined or understood–are those who are marginalized, like ourselves. Just as we reach out tto those we love for some sense of balance after being unmoored, we also need to reach out to those others sent to the margins by suspicion and doubt. Is our civil rights movement just for us, or is it meant to pull in everyone left clinging to the margins of society by the defamatory power of hate?
Hate fueled what happened in Boston, but it could just as easily fuel mindless retribution, whether someone is caught or not. Our solidarity is with Boston, who’s been victimized, but what happened there should strengthen our resolve against the hate that breeds destruction and would take us all if it could.
VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH is a Pulitzer-Prize nominated journalist who has won the NLGJA Award for several series on LGBT issues. She is the author and editor of more than 30 books including the award-winning Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life. She lives in Philadelphia. Follow her at @VABVOX