"How do you defend against terrorists?" asked a colleague as we processed news reports of two bomb explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
The answer, truth be told, is you probably don’t defend against terrorism. Like a deadbolt on a residential door, you can create deterrents that slow down the bad guys, but a determined thief will only be delayed, not prevented.
Although it isn’t yet known whether these bombs in Boston were a terrorist attack, questions like my colleague’s arise because we live in such an open and "target-rich" society.
School commencements, upcoming auto races in Indianapolis and Charlotte, N.C., July 4 parades, baseball games, Christmas parades, the Super Bowl — America offers a rich array of accessible and high-profile targets. Not to mention everyday targets such as subways, airports and tall buildings.
People filled with hatred and guided by nihilism will always find a way to strike. Our best defense is what I saw in news coverage from Boston: first responders rushing toward danger; soldiers in uniform pitching in to move debris; everyday folks turning instinctively to locate the wounded; strangers joining hands to rush victims to hospitals.
Plus the response I saw on Facebook: prayer, concern and resolve. Not rage, not calls for retribution, but prayer, concern and resolve. "Keep running," said one post accompanying the marathon sponsor’s logo.
If an open society turns closed, the terrorists will have won. If violence is met with violence, hatred met with hatred, terrorists will have won. If frightened people allow fear to rule their lives in public places, terrorists will have won.
We do allow our lives to be changed. Security lines, for example, make air travel even worse than it could be. Entering a government building means more screening. Police have ramped up their presence in many schools and transit systems. But I always thank the screeners and guards for being there.
The way to defend an open society is to remain open. Determinedly open, maybe even brashly open. Keep running the marathon, keep working in skyscrapers, keep standing among the 1 million people in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
The way to remain free is to demand freedom and to defend it. The way to be a just society is to behave justly. The way to confront religious extremism run amok, is to remain people of tolerance, compassion and faith.
Vigilance matters. New York subway passengers, for example, are being trained to spot stray packages in public places and to report them to authorities.
Humility matters. The United States isn’t blameless on the world stage; we deserve some of the anger aimed at us. When we ratchet down the bluster and acknowledge our shortcomings, we isolate the terrorists.
We need to do more. As long as we cling to a vastly unrealistic share of the world’s resources and wealth, we guarantee fresh explosions of rage.
Values matter. We need to remember that excessive wealth isn’t what we offer the world. Our virtue isn’t $105 million apartments overlooking Central Park or 105,000-seat football stadiums. Our gift to the world is freedom. When people come to our shores, that is what they seek. Freedom certainly is what my ancestors sought.
If some nihilists exploit that freedom to foment fear, our best response is to keep on being free, and to keep on defending the freedom of others.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York.
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