In Boston as in Baghdad, Tragedy Cannot Be Ignored

Lara Jakes
National Journal

The dull boom sounded all too familiar; the blood-splattered streets and frantic screams of confused bystanders could have been in Baghdad on any given day. But it was Boston, in an affluent area surrounded by world-class security forces, where deadly roadside bombings aren't supposed to happen.

Or, at least, that is what Americans have been saying in the days and hours since Monday's double blast at the Boston Marathon finish line. People have likened the scene — with its shock, carnage, and waves of fear — to a war zone. Three people were killed and at least 170 wounded in the explosions.

Friends and colleagues ask why, and how, this was possible. “What is the world coming to?” they say, bewildered.

It occurs to me that, perhaps, this is the way the world already is, and has been for some time.

In Iraq, where I lived for three years, roadside bombs are a near-daily way of life. They are heartbreaking, scary, and devastating. But they no longer have the power to shock in the decadelong strife that endures, and is escalating, as al-Qaida in Iraq refuses to be cowed.

Roadside bombs are daily hazards for local and international troops in Afghanistan. Vehicle bombs, another hallmark of al-Qaida and its affiliates, have exploded this week in Somalia, Pakistan, and Bahrain. And in Syria, at least 70,000 people have been killed so far—in bombings, assassinations and shellings—in a two-year civil war that shows no sign of ending.

“Praying for ALL the victims of war,” a woman who identified herself as Ami Wager of Essex, England, wrote Wednesday on Twitter. She hashtagged the victims of Boston alongside those in Syria, Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan asking for worldwide support and empathy. It was but one of too-many-to-count similar sentiments deluging Twitter over the two days.

In a poignant statement the morning after the Boston bombings, a group of Syrians now living in the United States said the attacks targeted “all of humanity.” It was a touching, if tragic, sentiment from the Syrian Expatriate Organization that has watched its own country be torn apart.

The Michigan-based group “urges people of all faiths to pray for the health and well-being of all those affected by yesterday's bombing—as well as all those affected by violence across the globe,” said its chairman, Dr. Mazen Hasan.

To be clear: There is no indication that the Boston explosions were planned or executed by Islamic extremists or any foreign-based terrorist groups, according to authorities. Law-enforcement and U.S. intelligence officials say that the homemade bombs, packed in pressure cookers, could have been built by anyone who looked up the ingredients online.

As far as deadly attacks in the U.S. go, Americans are more used to—if still horrified by—mass shootings: Newtown. Aurora. Fort Hood. Virginia Tech. The killings are less random, more personal—even if only in the minds of the gunmen.

Bombings are nameless, faceless, and usually inescapable acts of violence designed to kill anyone in their paths, with no obvious rhyme or reason. As such, they have sucked the confidence and hope from Iraqis who never know when it is safe to go out.

On the streets of Baghdad, bombs are usually tucked inside trash bags and piles of litter, or stuck onto and inside cars. Their blasts can be felt from blocks away, if not miles, and the black plume of smoke that rises from an explosion is a good indicator of how much firepower it packed.

In the years I lived in Baghdad, I watched Iraqis turn from gloomy to downright fatalistic about their futures. Violence peaked during the darkest years of the war, from 2004 to 2007, but gradually got better before settling into an uneasy plateau of steady but small bombings in 2009 and 2010.

By the time U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, al-Qaida was launching at least one major spate of bombings each month, killing dozens and wounding hundreds across the country in a single day. The violence only got worse last year and remains high today; diplomats in recent months privately have described Iraq as “falling apart.”

Iraqis slog on, putting their fate in God's hands. “Inshallah,” they say—Arabic for “God willing” in a catchphrase that is used ironically as often as sincerely.

Juan Cole, an expert on Islam at the University of Michigan, said the Boston bombings should raise Americans' awareness and sympathy for those who cannot escape daily tragedy.

“What happened in Boston is undeniably important and newsworthy. But so is what happened in Iraq and Syria,” Cole said Tuesday in an online newsletter he publishes regularly. “Having experienced the shock and grief of the Boston bombings, cannot we in the U.S. empathize more with Iraqi victims and Syrian victims?”

In the end, the people who live in war zones and other conflict hot spots know better than anyone how to deal with heartache. It's not just about being resilient. Survival is the goal, since it's not always possible to simply stay out of sorrow's path.

Here in America, we've largely been lucky to dodge brutal bombings in the dozen years since the 9/11 attacks. There have been a few thwarted attempts—the 2009 Christmas day underwear bomber in Detroit, for example, or the Times Square plot in 2010—but we're generally so unscathed that we bristle at stepped-up security measures as excessive or unnecessary.

I once counted going through six security checkpoint —complete with armed guards, bomb-sniffing dogs, x-ray machines and mandatory pat-downs—when flying out of the Baghdad commercial airport.

That's a way of life Americans cannot yet imagine but should no longer ignore.

It's the new reality, as Boston so tragically demonstrated, of taking nothing for granted in a world where stability is measured on a day-to-day basis.


Lara Jakes was an Associated Press correspondent and chief of bureau in Baghdad from 2009 to 2012 and is now an AP national-security writer in Washington. Follow her on Twitter at: