Terrorism, by its nature, simultaneously unites and divides us.
The unifying effect is manifest in the propulsive national impulse to express sympathy and solidarity following the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Just as after other attacks, that urge has swept over almost all barriers.
Maybe the best symbol of that surge has been the truce in the durable enmity between New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox fans. A few years ago, I attended a World Series game in Yankee Stadium between the Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies. Although both teams have deserved reputations for combative fans, people rooting for each side coexisted peacefully in my section throughout the game. The only time the Yankee fans in my area erupted was when one man helped his very aged mother up the stairs while wearing, for whatever misbegotten reason, a Red Sox cap with its iconic “B.” At that point, the entire section serenaded the slowly moving pair with a lusty chant of “Red Sox suck.” The primal force of that derision underscores how classy, and conciliatory, a gesture it was for the Yankees during a home game Tuesday to play “Sweet Caroline,” the song that embodies soft summer nights at Boston’s Fenway Park.
Attacks also divide by raising the fear that they represent the work of homegrown terrorists so alienated, so disconnected, from American life that they are willing to commit violence against their neighbors. That anxiety will dissipate if it turns out the Boston attack was conducted by a disturbed lone individual nursing an idiosyncratic grievance (or no coherent grievance at all). But if authorities ever conclude that the bombing was executed by an individual or organization pursuing a larger political agenda, either domestic or foreign, inevitably that will cause at least some Americans to question the loyalty of people who look or sound like the perpetrators. As a thought experiment, imagine if the mass shootings in Tucson, Aurora, or Newtown had been carried out not by disturbed young white men but by students from Arab countries or members of Mexican drug gangs who crossed the border illegally. If that were the case, America would likely be having a vitriolic conversation about loyalty, surveillance, and racial profiling, extending far beyond the debate over gun control that has raged across the Senate floor this week.
That impulse might be understandable. But one lesson of American life since 9/11 is that it would be misguided. The years since that terrible day have shown that the fundamental bonds holding together this diverse nation are more resilient and durable than seemed possible when the towers fell.
The 9/11 attacks unnerved and staggered the U.S. in many ways, provoking responses that politically divide the nation even now. But two very bad things that might have happened did not. One was a systematic backlash against American Muslims. Prejudice obviously exists: In a comprehensive 2011 Gallup Poll, Muslims were more likely than Americans of other religious backgrounds to report discrimination. But Muslims never faced anything comparable to the recoil against foreign communities in the U.S. during World War I or World War II; the examples of places resisting the operation of mosques, for instance, draw attention precisely because they are exceptions. (One 2011 study found more than 2,000 mosques operating in the United States.) The 2011 Gallup survey concluded, “A majority of Americans of every faith see Muslim Americans as being loyal to their country.” The poll also said that U.S. Muslims are as satisfied as Americans from other religious backgrounds with their lives today—and more optimistic about their prospects five years down the road.
The second bad thing that didn’t happen after 9/11 bookends the first: Islamic radicals did not find a big pool of American Muslims alienated enough to become terrorists. A handful (such as the would-be Times Square bomber) have sought to launch attacks. But, as The New York Times’s Ross Douthat recently noted, “of all the factors that have kept America relatively safe these last 10 years, the lack of real domestic radicals (Islamist, far-right, or far-left, whatever) looms very, very large. Madmen and lost souls and lone wolves—those we have in abundance. But not people willing and able to cooperate in a murderous cause.” That will be worth remembering, if and when authorities pin the blame for the Boston bombing.
One of America’s greatest strengths is its almost infinite capacity to include, absorb, and integrate new groups. It’s a revealing coincidence that the Boston attack took place on what Major League Baseball now observes as Jackie Robinson Day—celebrating the achievement of a racial pioneer whom many in his day scorned and resisted. In America, walls fall, sooner or later.
Our amalgamating capacity obviously doesn’t erase all of our differences. Our politics are ominously and stubbornly polarized along overlapping lines of race, generation, education, region, and religious faith. But a society forever absorbing the new dissolves alienation and disrupts radicalization. So long as the instinct to include remains common in America, attacks like the one in Boston will remain rare.
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