Until September 11th 2001, I had taken for granted the sense of security I felt as a woman who had traded in Northern Ireland for America. Foolishly, I had too quickly dropped my guard, almost forgetting anything can happen. I grew complacent and smug, confident that – unlike her mother – my American daughter would never have to look twice at an unattended shopping bag that had been simply forgotten by someone in a hurry, or that she would never find herself standing stock still with her arms over her head to be searched before proceeding through airport security, or wonder while poring over international headlines, how a complete stranger could hate her because of her nationality; or, that she would find out on Facebook that two bombs exploded at the finish-line of the iconic Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring more than 140. Little Martin Richard, the eight year old boy killed in the blast had just hugged his father who moments earlier crossed the finish line. Anything can happen – it always does.
Even though it is a big American city, I always think of Boston as a small town, buzzing with excitement when the Red Sox are at Home as they were during the 2013 Marathon – it was a warm day, dry and bright, the promise of victory hanging in the air. Before those two bombs exploded at the finish line, with the kind of chilling choreography eerily reminiscent of explosions that time and again shook my Northern Ireland to its core, Boston was celebrating with winners already across the finish line, and Red Sox Nation jubilant with the walk-off win.
I imagine some people in the crowd guessed or hoped those blasts were just celebratory fireworks, the way we convince ourselves it’s only a car backfiring on the freeway and not a gunshot, or it’s just a clap of Monsoon thunder, not a bomb going off on the railway line. But then there was that plume of grey smoke, the unmistakable stench of it, the scream of sirens, the blood on Boylston Street, and the sickening, renewed fear of being under attack, once again in the aftermath of those two planes crashing with such force into the heart of a city, on another clear day that had been full of possibilities, the Manhattan skyline sparkling in the sunshine.
Anything Can Happen by Seamus Heaney
After Horace, Odes, I, 34
Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses
Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
and the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
the winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers
Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleading on the next.
Ground gives. The heaven’s weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle lid.
Capstones shift. Nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.
Anything can happen. The 2013 Boston Marathon was but another stark and sobering reminder of this truth. Still, no one would have expected it. No one would have expected Newtown and the harrowing irony of the Marathon’s 26th mile marker dedicated to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting.
Looking on, from my living room on the other side of the country, I should have known that the finish line of a signature race is, for some person or people, not an unexpected place at all; rather it is “a legitimate target.” And, with over 25,000 assembled for the event, the potential for a tremendous loss of life. A profound sense of sadness and weariness accompanies this awareness, because it reconfirms what I know, that it is impossible to defeat terrorism. At the same time, it is impossible to live in constant fear of it, otherwise you might never go outside, as my mother often told me when I was a young girl growing up in Northern Ireland.
Usually, we were at a safe distance from “The Troubles.” Except every night when we turned on the news or the odd time that our kitchen window shook because a bomb had exploded somewhere close. There was the time the car-bomb exploded outside Halls Hotel, and then years later when my brother, as a new journalist, had to interview the grandmother of three little boys murdered, burned to death on July 12, 1998. Richard, Mark and Jason, just eleven, nine, and seven years old, had been asleep when a petrol bomb was thrown through the window of their home. Then there was the otherwise typical Saturday night out in Belfast, when my college friend Ruth and I returned to her brother’s house, only to learn that her car had been stolen and set ablaze, a barricade across town somewhere.
Years earlier, I remember watching grainy black and white images on a tiny television, the evening news, and a reporter in the street relating the events of a Sunday in 1972, when during a Civil Rights march in Derry’s Bogside, British soldiers shot into a crowd of unarmed and peaceful civilians, killing thirteen of them. Bloody Sunday. Over two decades later, as a young mother, visiting home from America, I remember the bombing of Omagh and being horrified that it could happen after what had happened in Enniskillen.
Never again? Think again.
Physically untouched by all these – yes – but changed nonetheless. Ostensibly, I survived The Troubles. I just managed to avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The images are indelible and iconic: Father Daly waving a blood-stained white handkerchief on the streets of Derry; aging veterans of the World Wars, medals gleaming in Enniskillen; the carnage on Market Street in the heart of Omagh.
When I heard about Boston, I thought immediately of Omagh, when the Real IRA loaded a non-descript car with 500 pounds of explosives, parked it in the middle of the little market town, and detonated it when it could do most harm. Immediately, glass, masonry and metal ripped through the crowd of shoppers, mostly women and children, the sheer force killing 21 people immediately. One of them was a woman, pregnant with twins. Some of their bodies were never found. Hundreds were injured.
I will never forget the Omagh bombing. It was on a Saturday when mothers were shopping for back-to-school supplies and uniforms. Those responsible called in a warning, and with unimaginable cruelty and callousness led the police to divert the crowd not to safety but to where they would be the most vulnerable. It happened during my daughter’s first trip to Ireland. Not quite eight months old, she was the surprise for my mother’s 60th birthday party. I remember that night, holding her tight as I watched the news in my parent’s house, the accounts from witnesses forever changed and devastated by the blood that flowed in the gutters and the bits and pieces of people lying on the street. One of the volunteer nuns recalls the scene before her at Tyrone County Hospital. A war-zone. A killing field:
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. People were lying on the floor with limbs missing and there was blood all over the place. People were crying for help and looking for something to kill the pain. Other people were crying out looking for relatives. You could not really be trained for what you had seen unless you were trained in Vietnam or somewhere like that
How could Omagh happen after Enniskillen, where over twenty-five years ago at 10.43AM on Remembrance Sunday, the IRA detonated a bomb without warning, killing eleven ordinary people and injuring sixty:
How could Boston happen?
And what can we do? Like Newtown and Omagh, New York and Enniskillen, we will find, long before the answers, the highest expressions of humanity and kindess within the hearts of ordinary people who will emerge as heroes. Mr. Rogers calls them “the helpers.”
While we struggle to find the words to explain the inexplicable – again – we can remind our children – and ourselves – of the helpers and their humanity that shines through the darkest days:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.