Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Peace at Antietam, Carnage in Copley Square

On this just-past beautiful spring Sunday, my wife and I took our first visit to Duke Farms, the 2600 acre Jersey estate of the tobacco heiress, philanthropist and passionate horticulturalist Doris Duke. The foundation has just launched a free bike share program, and we spent three happy hours tooling around the meadows, wooded ridges, and huge network of man-made, landscaped lakes, all in perfect 60-degree sunshine.

At the heart of the estate is a house that was never built - preserved foundations at the top of a low bluff, with grand marble stairs leading down to a large circular meadow.  At about 5:30 I took a short solo walk down the giant stairs, which felt like something out of Narnia, into the meadow, where you're flanked with grasses maybe two or three feet high.  There, in the late afternoon sun, I flashed back to the battlefield at Antietam, which includes a cornfield you can traverse, and which we also visited on a still, sunny afternoon.

At Antietam you are at pains to imagine unspeakable carnage, and what struck me late in the afternoon sun there, and came back to me this past Sunday, was the sense of deep domestic peace in the ensuing 150 years, and what  a rare blessing that is.  I know that peace is marred by a further hundred years of peonage for African Americans in the south, and almost equally brutal discrimination in the north, and to this day by urban war zones, and a brutal criminal justice system, and a thousand other social ills and injustices. But human social well-being is relative, and the peace for most of us is real, and an accomplishment and a blessing.

I gather that a similar sense of felicity and festivity was in the air in Boston yesterday, until 2:50 p.m.:

It was as good a ­Patriots Day, as good a Marathon day, as any, dry and seasonably warm but not hot like last year. The buzz was great. While the runners climbed Heartbreak Hill, the Red Sox were locked in another white-knuckle duel with the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park. The only thing missing was Lou Reed crooning “Perfect Day” in the background.

The winners and the elite runners had long ago finished, when in the Fens, at shortly after 2 p.m., Mike ­Napoli kissed a ball off The Green Monster in the bottom of the ninth, allow­ing Dustin Pedroia to scamper all the way home from first base, giving the Red Sox a walk-off win.

Many of those jubilant Sox fans had walked down through Kenmore Square toward the Back Bay to watch the Marathon...
Peace and well-being can end at any moment for any of us ( those of us who are lucky enough to experience them in the first place). That's human life.  But what 9/11 and its aftermath should have brought home to us by now is that our own hysterical overreactions pose the greatest danger to the domestic peace and prosperity we have achieved. The Times has a grim reminder today of how real that danger is: U.S. Practiced Torture After 9/11, Nonpartisan Review Concludes.  First comes the spontaneous heroism at the moment of crisis (well documented in the Kevin Cullen piece quoted above), and then the paranoid recriminations and overcompensating security measures. We can destroy our civil liberties and drain our treasury while exacerbating the miseries of people in less fortunate parts of the globe if we let the occasional successful attack, from whatever source, genuinely terrorize us.

Update: On not overreacting, no one is more salutary than Bruce Schneier, author of Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive. Ezra Klein interviewed him today:
Ezra Klein: What should people be thinking about in the aftermath of an attack like this?

Bruce Schneier: They should refuse to be terrorized. Terrorism is a crime against the mind. What happened in Boston, horrific as it is, is theater to make you scared. That’s the point. The message of terrorist attacks is you’re not safe, and the government can’t protect you — that the existing power structure can’t protect you.

I tell people if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it. By definition, news is something that almost never happens. The brain fools you into thinking the news is what’s important. Our brains overreact to this stuff. Terrorism just pegs the fear button.

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