I spent a lot of this week troubled by the bombing of the Boston Marathon. The only relief for me was that this, like the Newton massacre, was something I didn't have to explain to my very young son yet. But eventually I'll have to. I'll have to explain to him how people hate and use violence to achieve political ends, that they are capable of extreme thinking they can't give voice to and must demonstrate with force what they can't do at the ballot box. Writers and artists sometimes don't give themselves enough credit for their existential advantages--the fact that they have a means to express themselves. A voice to shape their environment, even if it is to an infinitesimal degree. Even if it's through a painting in a garage that nobody sees, or a piece of music unpublished or a poorly traveled blog. But the crippled, politically disenfranchised soul who can bomb a peaceful sporting event using pressure cookers filled with nails is the sort who makes violence an expression of what he's otherwise impotent to say.
We all have extreme beliefs. But we have to absorb other people's realities. We have to embrace freedom. We also have to recognize when freedom becomes tyrannous in and of itself--an infinitely regressing obsession with perceiving barriers. No matter who this person was, he or she has a perception problem and perceives that he is in some way not free. Some people walk down the street with endless freedoms and still see nothing but a jail.
I can't yet tell my son that it's statistically very unlikely that he'll ever be hurt in a tragedy like this. Or that terrorists are rarely that successful and that people tend to react disproportionately to rare events because of fear and make irrational future decisions prompted by statistical outliers. (The Atlantic has a good article on this.) I remember after 9/11--there was a lot of argument that New York, having been attacked, would immediately be attacked again. Specifically, by nukes. That fear even roused the sage Warren Buffett to decry imminent nuclear strikes on D.C. and the Big Apple, which made people take notice of course, even though he's a investor, not Nostradamus, and, if you know anything about his investing philosophy, it has nothing to do with predicting trends. In fact, his prediction was an anomaly for his philosophical and financial temperament. I told a friend frightened by Buffett's prediction that the 9/11 attacks actually proved just how desperate our enemies were. It showed, demonstratively, that they had no nukes. Nor bombs. Nor guns. They had to come up with an almost impossible plot, one that could have been frustrated at several points (and partly was over the skies of Pennsylvania). If the entire plot had been foiled ahead of time, let's be honest, many of us would have derided it as hopelessly cartoonish.
Of course it wasn't foiled. But that doesn't mean it wasn't rare. According to some psychologists, my child is only going to be as anxious as I am about this and the horrible other news that has come down this week in Congress and West, Texas; these days, every attack, explosion and school shooting makes me anxious. I can't yet impart to my son the wisdom of statistics. Instead I have to absorb the wisdom of forbearance and tolerance and critical thinking and feel confident enough about my world that I can make my confidence his.