Through normalcy, we triumph over fear

by Ryan Catalani / Beacon Staff • April 18, 2013

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Armed forces on the Boston Common.
Armed forces on the Boston Common.

The first boom was startling, but not necessarily concerning. People stood up, craned their heads, walked toward the windows. From my seat near the back of the Starbucks on 755 Boylston Street, I couldn't see much—I could almost dismiss the noise as something planned. I looked back at my computer screen and poised my fingers to continue typing my term paper.

Thirteen seconds later, the second boom came, though in my memory it feels like minutes elapsed. I glanced up and at once the reality crystallized in my mind—there was an explosion. The glass windows were shattered, gray soot blanketed the floor, and there was only one expression evident on the faces and in the voices of people crying and running inside: terror.

But we cannot allow that terror, deep as it struck at 2:50 p.m. on Monday, to confine us. We must mourn, we must be outraged, we must remember—but we must not allow ourselves to be defined by fear. The best way to respond to this situation, to not let the attacker or attackers succeed, is to simply resume our normal lives.

For many Emerson students, I know this might seem like a tall order, given that the incident occurred just blocks away from our doorstep. Eight of our peers were injured in the blast. The National Guard has set up encampments on the Common, our quad. Those who live along the Green Line's route must pass through the still-closed, pitch black Copley Station to get to their apartments.

And I admit that with each new photo of a candlelight vigil under pink and purple skies, with each breathlessly reported development, it can be hard to imagine how we could ever truly return to a state of normalcy. In a city no longer sacrosanct, it may seem unfeasible to ever again gather in large crowds or walk down the streets of Back Bay as freely as we did before Monday.

But to shrink away from the urban life we’ve learned to enjoy would mean admitting defeat.

I know that for some of us, the fear is inadvertent—and certainly unwanted—that the sights and sounds and smells of two bombs horrifically exploding just feet away are not easily forgotten. From my seat toward the rear of Starbucks, I was fairly insulated from the explosion, but I know too many were not. And I feel deeply for those with mental and physical wounds, who have trouble sleeping and break down in class as they try to recount their experiences. For them, I know recovery will take longer, and it’s truly fortunate that we have such a strong community to provide support.

Other Emerson students, though, who were farther away when the blasts went off, should try their best to return to their everyday lives, to recognize that fear is no longer warranted. There’s a phenomenon that scientists call the “availability heuristic,” an innate mental shortcut that humans often use to judge the likelihood of events. Decades of research have shown we have a tendency to unconsciously assume that outcomes we can more easily think of are more likely to occur.

This heuristic can make it feel that more acts of violence are imminent, because Monday’s events are still fresh in our minds. But this strategy is, of course, demonstrably false. Tragedies like the marathon bombing are isolated, rare, and difficult to engineer, and we should not live in fear.

Indeed, the community—in our college and beyond—will determine how these attacks affect us, because now, days after the bombing, the perpetrator or perpetrators have no further power. Their acts are done. We alone can choose whether the terror they intended to inflict will pervade our society, or be forgotten.

We can be, as two of our peers have so movingly showed, Boston Strong.

And walking through downtown on Wednesday, it was heartening to see the swan boats, sunbathers, and schoolkids once again return to the Public Garden, already going back to enjoy the warm spring day, the bright young blooms. We should take time to heal, but we should also enjoy this season of renewal and walk down Boylston Street with pride once it reopens. We should relish our homework, our clubs, our classes, because they are further ties to the lives we must restore.

We must remember this Patriot’s Day, and what should be lasting are our memories of those who died, our tributes to the many heroes — and how we managed to overcome the terror, through nothing but our most routine actions.