From “The Accidental Buddhist”. “The Buddha once asked a student, ‘If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?’ The student replied, ‘It is.’ The Buddha then asked, ‘If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?’ The student replied again, ‘It is.’ The Buddha then explained, ‘In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.’”
The terrorist attacks on 9/11 were a first arrow. Mass shootings at Columbine, Aurora, and Sandy Hook were first arrows. Coal mine disasters at Upper Big Branch and Sago were first arrows. And disasters such as Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina were first arrows as well. Now we can add the Boston Marathon bombings to this list of events whose impact is so deeply felt that they invite reaction and, with it, the possibility of a damaging second arrow.
Terrorist acts, unlike accidents and natural disasters, are undertaken with the specific goal of inciting a second arrow. By themselves terrorist attacks do comparatively little damage. As of this writing, the Boston bombings have killed three and wounded 175 -- a human and spiritual tragedy, but a statistical non-event on a day when gunfire and accidents killed and wounded a hundred times that many. Even the 3,000 Americans killed in the 9/11 attacks increased that day’s death toll in America by only 25% and in that year by a factor so small that it amounts to a statistical rounding error.
The damage terrorist attacks do is spiritual, but social damage, if there is any, is inflicted by us when we react. Sometimes our reactions are prudent and in rough proportion to the risk presented. That was the case with Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Murrah federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and with the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996. Sometimes we underreact as was the case with the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in the wake of which Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and the legislature dissipated public anger by enacting ballyhooed but almost hollow mine safety bill.
But, more often, if the event has caught the public’s imagination, we overreact and in some cases we oppotrunistically exploit the event. The 9/11 attacks provided a convenient excuse to launch a preconceived war with Iraq that resulted in more than a million deaths and little beneficial effect apart from a reshuffling of that country’s sectarian deck. Meanwhile, here in America we witness the aftereffects every time we walk into an airport or discover new ways in which civil rights have been circumscribed in the name of national security.
Although Osama Bin Laden may have lost the war, he won the battle of 9/11 by successfully provoking a reaction that cost America and the world untold numbers of lives, billions of dollars, and, perhaps most dearly, the moral stature America once had in the world as well as much of the good will Americans of different political persuasions once felt toward one another. Such was the devastating power of that second arrow.
So, what will we make of the Boston bombings? How, if at all, will we or should we react beyond finding and prosecuting those responsible?
At present there is too little information to know and, besides, we haven’t finished dealing with our previous mind-concentrating event, the mass shooting at Sandy Hook. As of this writing, a bill that would expand background checks for gun purchases awaits a vote in the senate. Some say the bill, although inadequate, is a step in the right direction and refects what we’ve learned as a result of Sandy Hook and similar catastrophes. Others say the bill does nothing to enhance safety, needlessly burdens gun owners, and represents a shameless exploitation of Sandy Hook to achieve part of a larger agenda.
Since we only learn from experience, events such as Sandy Hook warrant public debate. Still, it’s difficult to determine when the discussion passes from the realm of legitimate debate and into the realm of exploitation. But, there are warning signs. One is when people willfully mislead, which is what happened in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. But, another warning sign is more subtle.
During the 1988 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis was confronted with the question of whether he would support the death penalty for a criminal who raped and murdered his wife. In one of many self-inflicted wounds, Dukakis, a death penalty opponent, responded to the horrific scenario in such a detached and bureaucratic manner that he seemed alien. After the debate New York Governor Mario Cuomo, another death penalty opponent, reflected on how he would have answered the question. Cuomo wrote, “I tremble at the thought of how I might react to a killer who took the life of someone in my own family. I know that I might not be able to suppress my anger or put down a desire for revenge, but I also know this society should strive for something better than what it feels at its weakest moments.”
When we discover who set the Boston bombs and the reasons why, we like Mario Cuomo, should give full vent to expressions of anger, but also let reason guide our actions lest we again fall victim to our worst angels and the second arrow.