James Burns: An age of awareness

Published: Friday, May 17, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 5:24 p.m.

Two acts of terror. Same motive, murder Americans. Far more at 9-11 than 4-15. But Boston may have driven a nail deeper into our psyche. Why? Because it brought 9-11 down to ground level.

Flying planes into tall buildings was so surreal, so like a late-night horror movie that maybe we never really wrapped our minds around it. But a pressure-cooker bomb left at ground level in a crowd at a sports event? So simple, so common, so easy to identify with that it’s left a really chilling imprint on our national nerve center.

I’m from semi-rural Ohio — where we wouldn’t worry about fanatics flying planes into tall buildings. We didn’t have one. But we had lots of sporting events, and today even my home “township” has malls and large crowds at Friday-night football. Get the picture? Yes, we all see it — which is why we may be moving from an Age of Innocence to an Age of Awareness. The Marathon bombing may have made scouts out of all of us — be prepared. Every day, everywhere.

Graduate school took me to New York and Boston, scenes of these two terrorist attacks. But I was in Manhattan when the only mayhem was Maris and Mantle murdering baseballs. And I only indirectly felt fear from the Boston Strangler during my Boston days since by then I was married—the Strangler stalked women. So I didn’t really feel fear on a personal level until family letters took me to Belfast — eight times.

I had more guns pointed at me my first twenty minutes in Belfast than in my prior forty years on this earth. Because it had never happened before. I was two blocks into a walk from the train station to city center when an armored vehicle rumbled by, and a soldier trained his rifle on me. I fit a profile, a single man with a black briefcase; he didn’t know it was stuffed with family letters and academic papers.

And then came the bus stop. As I approached, an Army jeep jumped the sidewalk and instantly screeched to a halt, discharging four soldiers who dropped to one knee with rifles raised in firing position. As you can guess, one drew a bead on me, the guy with the briefcase, his aim following me step by step as I joined the line waiting for the bus. Welcome to Belfast.

That was 1979, a decade into Northern Ireland’s terrorist Troubles. The two women waiting for the bus with me chatted away about their shopping spree — in a restricted zone where both people and cars were frisked before entering. The women seemed to take no notice of the four soldiers and all those guns. It was their New Normal. Scared the heck out of me but not them. This was the start of my education of living in a security-conscious, terrorism-minded environment, Belfast teaching me something that Columbia and MIT just couldn’t do.

Armies wage war where thousands die and their strategists study statistics of attrition. Terrorists target one or two and their strategists study psychological profiles, putting violence into a civilian setting that personalizes fear for all of us. I remember the farmer shot dead sitting on his tractor in the field; the policeman who always checked under his car for a bomb before leaving for work—and was shot dead while on his hands and knees checking for a bomb one morning. Or the woman who survived three terrorist murder bids but literally died of fright thirty years later when a new rash of terrorist murders triggered her final panic attack. That’s cold-blooded killing that sends a shiver up our collective back.

So, yes, tracking family letters of the 1790s took me to Belfast the first time. I found cousins on the same farm two hundred years later—and in the midst of one of the terrorist flashpoints near the border. I went back seven times to observe the terrorism and the measures taken to combat it. It’s nasty stuff, and I hope and pray that the Boston bombing isn’t replicated by copycat killers in other civilian settings.

But we must begin to keep our eyes open while still doing what we normally do. The women chatted away about their shopping spree. But they knew the soldiers were there.

James F. Burns is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.

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