How to Respond to a Terrorist Attack

A Boston Marathon bombing survivor visits the scene of the first bomb explosion on Boylston Street in BostonBy David Rohde

BOSTON – There is no right way to react to a terrorist attack.

Oklahoma City rebuilt after Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 truck bomb attack on the federal government. Atlanta moved on following anti-abortion activist Eric Rudolph’s 1996 bombing of the Olympics. New York displayed staggering resiliency after the September 11 attacks.

Boston, though, may have set a new standard.

Customers swarmed restaurants and businesses on Boylston Street, the site of the marathon bombings, after police reopened the area on Wednesday. There is overwhelming pride here in the public institutions – police, hospitals, government officials and news outlets (forgive my bias) – that responded so swiftly to the bombing. And there has been no major backlash against the city’s Muslim community since two Chechen-American brothers were identified as the prime suspects.

There have been missteps, of course. The FBI apparently failed to follow up aggressively enough on warnings from Russian officials about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother accused in the attack. Police fired on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, his younger brother, when he was unarmed, wounded and hiding in a boat. And a transit police officer, who was gravely wounded in a firefight with the brothers, may have been mistakenly shot by a fellow officer.

But this city’s brave, charitable and tolerant spirit so soon after the attack is an extraordinary example for all. There is mourning here, but little sense of fear. There is anger, but a realization that terrorism is a reality for communities worldwide. And there is a determination to not allow attacks on civilians to paralyze or divide this city.

“You can’t blame everybody for a few radical lunatics with hatred in their hearts,” said Neil Tanger, a 65-year-old longtime Boston Marathon volunteer, who choked back tears when visiting the bombing site Thursday night. “Most of the people who come here come for the opportunity.”

Tanger, filled with pride in the city and its people, said the examples of his immigrant grandfather and his father, a World War Two veteran, inspired his response.

“We have what we have here because of their commitment to the American dream,” he said. “We’re not going to give that up because of a few lunatics. We’re going to continue to be strong.”

On Thursday, this modest-sized but global city was back. On a glorious spring afternoon in the Boston Public Gardens, parents showed toddlers the duck statues made famous by the children’s classic Make Way for Ducklings. Nearby, blooming magnolia trees and expectant college students filled Commonwealth Avenue. And at night, the streets around Fenway Park grew electric as the Red Sox battled the Houston Astros.

Khaled Lottfi, a 47-year-old Moroccan-American taxi driver and 25-year Boston resident, is on a one-man mission to explain his faith. Lottfi, who is Muslim, prayed in the days after the attacks that the perpetrators would not be Muslim.

After the surviving brother reportedly told investigators that they carried out the attacks to defend Islam, Lottfi started impromptu conversations about his faith with passengers in his taxi who seemed friendly.

“I tell them I’m Muslim and I can’t understand it either,” Lottfi said. “And they say, ‘Wow,’ and then they ask questions.”

Lottfi, who had lived in France but said he felt more tolerance for religious freedom in the United States, said the response from passengers has been overwhelmingly positive. He said he was doing “my little part” to ease fear in the city.

“They need to hear from a Muslim that I don’t condone this thing,” he said.

These are early days, of course. Flashes of anger do emerge. The day before images of the Tsarnaevs were released, an unidentified man assaulted a female Syrian doctor wearing a headscarf as she walked her 9-month-old daughter to day care in the Boston suburb of Malden.

“He said, ‘(Expletive) you. (Expletive) you, Muslims, You are terrorists, you are the ones who made the Boston explosion,’ ” Hebad Abolaban told the Boston Globe . “I was really, really completely shocked. I didn’t know what to do. Then I realized what happened. I was crying and crying.”

One woman visiting the bombing site called for a stricter immigration system and, like many Bostonians, expressed fury at reports that the older Tsarnaev brother received welfare. One young man who visited the site of the bombings on Thursday said he was a family friend of one victim. He called for tighter immigration laws and trying the surviving brother in a military court.

“If they were a scumbag in their own country, why should we let them in ours?” asked the young man, who did not want to be named. “Why is our government prosecuting him like he is one of us, when he obviously isn’t?”

Anger is understandable. Bostonians have suddenly joined residents of Kabul, Tel Aviv, Mumbai and Tokyo in living with terrorist attacks. In the past, no one here knew how they might react to a bomb set off in a crowd, a crazed gunman or a poison gas attack.

But this city is responding exactly as it should. The accused are being prosecuted as criminals – which they are. Public institutions are being praised – as they should be. And most people are resisting the attackers attempt to sow fear, bigotry and division.

While television images show the immediate chaos of attacks, they rarely present the long-term reaction. Bostonians are responding in the way average people have around the world when confronted with extremism: They help victims, feel contempt for the perpetrators and vow to not let them win.

“I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of the bombers,” Tanger said. “I’ll be back every year as long as I can walk.”

I expect massive crowds at next year’s Boston Marathon.

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