Well, somebody had to test whether it was too soon to ask if the “Boston Strong” movement had run its course and was becoming just a little bit silly.
As it turned out, that somebody was Bill Maher and the answer was, “Yes, it is too soon.”
On the November 8 episode of his HBO program Real Time, Maher noted how the Red Sox championship parade observed a moment of reflection when the procession reached the finish line of the Boston Marathon, the site of the April 15 bombings. Said Maher:
It was a bad day. Three people died, that’s terrible. More were maimed, that’s horrible. But unfortunately that happens every day, in car accidents and everything else. I mean, your city was not leveled by Godzilla.
In response, Thomas Menino, the outgoing mayor of Boston, called the comments “very irresponsible” and said that Maher “should be taken to task” for making them.
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Menino added. “Come to Boston, visit Boston and see what a strong city we are.”
Views of many other Bostonians followed in the same spirit, and can be roughly summed up as, “What a jerk.”
Maher’s broader point can be gleaned from what he said moments earlier on his show about the New York metro area regarding Hurricane Sandy, whose one-year anniversary led, among other things, to a postponement of that city’s final mayoral debate:
It was a storm, it was a bad storm. But it was an act of nature. Do we always need to wallow and re-grieve over every bad thing that’s ever happened in this country?
Well, how ‘bout it, folks? Conceding, as we might, that the person who asks such questions is an insensitive brute, let us soldier on and consider whether the insensitive brute has a point.
To wit: What is the appropriate amount of time an entire city is allowed to publicly mourn a tragedy? Is the length of the former determined by the scale of the latter?
Had the marathon attack killed three hundred people, rather than three, would and/or should shows of citywide solidarity, like those at the Red Sox parade, endure for a hundred times longer than they already have?
Conversely, had something like the 9/11 attacks inflicted far less damage than they did—suppose the buildings hadn’t collapsed—would the city of New York be justified in holding the sorts of massive annual commemorations it has held on every September 11 since?
In publicly grappling with acts of man-made and natural horror, should we not discriminate between truly seismic events and (relatively) small-scale traumas? Or does every high-profile calamity necessitate an equal—and equally open-ended—outpouring of public concern?
I wish to stress the use of the word “public” in all of these queries, since no one—including Bill Maher—would presume to tell a stricken individual that the time has come to “move on.” In one’s private life, there is no right or wrong way to grieve; everyone reacts to death and suffering differently.
But taking an assault on individuals to also be an assault on an entire city is a wholly separate matter and is fair game for scrutiny.
The essence of “Boston Strong”—the phrase itself and the attitude it represents—is that the people of Boston, like the people of New York before them, will not allow punks with bombs to bring the city to its knees. That we will carry on—proud and undaunted—and prove to evildoers everywhere that our values are not easily abandoned or destroyed.
Is this not, in so many words, exactly what the mean old man on HBO was suggesting? That we not abandon all sense of perspective and completely lose our marbles whenever something terrible happens? That the effects of what occurred on Boylston Street were challenging, but by no means insurmountable?
A central precept of all fiction writing intones, “Show, don’t tell.” If the city of Boston genuinely insists upon the doctrine of carrying on, might we demonstrate it by actually carrying on? By returning to our normal lives and not throwing a hissy fit whenever our pride is questioned?
If you want to prove that you’re strong, be strong. Don’t say it—just do it. Acknowledge your loss, comfort those who need comforting, and then resume business as usual.
For heaven’s sake, our city was not leveled by Godzilla.