Joan Wickersham

Viewpoints: Words fail in aftermath of Boston blasts

Published: Sunday, Apr. 21, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 5E

We're watching television. We can't seem to turn it off. We want information, insight, words that will help make sense of something frightening and mysterious. Words are being thrown around, but the more they are used, the more layered and elusive their meanings become.

Terror. In its simplest sense, the word means fear. But no one uses it in its simplest sense anymore. It has political overtones and an inflammatory effect.

Since the days of the French Revolution, the word "terror" when spoken in public discourse has referred to organized acts of violence designed to intimidate and demoralize a civilian population. Since 9/11, "terror" has taken on such incendiary connotations that the word itself has become synonymous with "the enemy"; we are fighting a war against it, even if we don't fully know where it exists, when it will strike, or whom it represents. The word "terrorism" has certain overtones, and its use can incite hatred and violence of a certain kind. It has implications of foreignness.

When President Barack Obama spoke publicly a few hours after the marathon bombings, he avoided the word "terrorism," and commentators pounced, ignoring his pointed statement that we didn't really know much yet. Sometimes a single word, in its use or omission, acquires so much meaning that entire views of the world, and possible courses of action, are embedded in it.

Lockdown. This is a scary, apocalyptic word. What does it mean? It used to be associated with prisons. Now it goes out over school email and voice mail systems. I got several messages late Monday notifying me that the university in Boston where I teach a class was in lockdown. Only those with university IDs were allowed inside the buildings. Bags and backpacks were being inspected. But were classes continuing to meet? The notices didn't say, and there was no way to find out. There's a weird dissociation between the alarmism of the word and the lack of clarity about the mundane details of its implementation.

Healing. This is a platitude when used immediately after a tragedy. It's a place-holding word, and politicians and newscasters utter it all the time. "Now is the time for healing," reporters were saying from the streets on Monday, while trying to elicit quotes from bystanders about the horror of the carnage and the toughness and resilience of Bostonians. I heard a network anchor ask a runner, "So, will you be running again next year?" The runner had the grace to answer that she couldn't even begin to think about it.

Bravery. I thought this was another hokey tragedy word. But you can see bravery clearly in videos of the chaos. The minute the explosion happened, dozens of people ran straight toward it.

Safe. It's a word I've never needed to think about, walking down Boylston Street.

Marathon. What will that word mean from now on? If you live in the Boston area, you hear and say it all the time. When my kids were little, we used to watch the race with friends who lived on the marathon route; we would fill a little red wagon with paper cups of water and hand them out to the runners, cheering until we were hoarse.

This year I sponsored a friend who was running for the first time. He was training hard but scared he might not finish. He sent me an email late Monday. His wife and their 6-year-old daughter were at the finish line; they were shaken up, but they were all safe. My son's girlfriend was safe too. She was also near the finish line, just across the street from one of the explosions. She had casually mentioned the marathon to me the other day, saying she thought it might be fun to go and watch a friend finish.

It's hard to imagine that anyone will ever casually mention the marathon again.

Joan Wickersham's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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