When I heard about the Boston Marathon bombings, I'd just finished reading Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel's harrowing op-ed in the New York Times. Moqbel has been on hunger strike since February to protest his indefinite imprisonment, without trial, at the United States' detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
According to the U.S. military, 99 other men are currently on hunger strike with him. Of those, 20, including Moqbel, are being force-fed daily -- an act the U.N. Human Rights Commission considers a form of torture. Five are hospitalized.
Moqbel's account of his imprisonment is enough to turn even the strongest stomach:
It was so painful that I begged them to stop feeding me. The nurse refused to stop feeding me. As they were finishing, some of the "food" spilled on my clothes. I asked them to change my clothes, but the guard refused to allow me to hold on to this last shred of my dignity.
...I will agree to whatever it takes in order to be free. I am now 35. All I want is to see my family again and to start a family of my own.
Reading these words in the middle of a crowded coffee shop, I had to pause to keep from weeping.
My horror and outrage were quickly replaced by shock and terror as news of the bombings raced across my Twitter feed. Almost immediately, I started texting friends in the area to see if they were safe. One was a block away from the finish line when the bombs went off. Another was three blocks away. Two had left the area earlier in the day. Meanwhile, a flood of texts asked if I was safe, some relaying breathless -- and thankfully false -- rumors about bombs on the T.
I wanted to meet with friends, to write my feelings down, to pray. But my legs wouldn't move. My pen fell silent, and the first words of a prayer caught in my throat like dust. The bombings were a hard blow to the jaw, and, like a fighter caught off-guard, the entire city was dazed and staggered by the punch.
Sitting here at the same table in the same coffee shop where I first learned about the bombings, I'm beginning to clear the concussion from my head. An event that was so close I almost couldn't see it is finally distant enough to come into focus. News that was buried underneath the rubble on Boylston Street two weeks ago is being pulled into the light of day once more. And sitting in the same place I was three weeks ago, Moqbel's op-ed and the Boston bombings call out to me demanding some words, some prayer, some action.
Gallons of ink have already been spilled trying to link the bombings with Islamic extremism, or U.S. foreign policy, or the unrest in Chechnya. The fact that Moqbel's article came out mere hours before the bombings only highlights these connections. There is strong evidence that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were motivated by a violent and extreme interpretation of Islam and by the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, their motives remain a tangled knot of political and religious ideology, dashed personal ambitions, social isolation and fraternal loyalty. These conflicting drives will sort themselves out in the weeks and months ahead. For me, however, the synchronicity between Moqbel's op-ed and the Boston Marathon bombings raises a different question.
What makes both situations so horrifying is their banality. While media reports paint Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a deeply trouble personality, his younger brother comes across as a relatively normal college sophomore. Dzhokar's dorm mates describe him as a quiet pothead who loved playing soccer. "He was completely normal," his friend Jennifer Mendez told the Detroit Free Press. Other classmates talked to CNN about seeing him in class and at a soccer party in the days after the bombing.
Meanwhile, the men and women who strap Samir Moqbel to a chair and force a feeding tube down his throat twice a day are the same ones we clap for during Veterans Day parades. The president who keeps Moqbel locked up without trial is the same one whose White House Correspondents Dinner speech was shared across Facebook last weekend. The politicians who back that policy are people we see every day on the evening news. They're completely normal.
Two days after the Boston Marathon bombings, I left for the International Buddhist-Christian Conference in New York City. One of the speakers -- Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, a Buddhist monk from South Korea -- described being tortured during the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, who ruled South Korea from 1979 to 1988. As Pomnyun sat doubled over in pain during a break in the torture sessions, he overheard one of the torturers talking with his colleagues about his daughter's college entrance exams.
Hannah Arendt discusses this phenomenon in depth in her study of Adolf Eichmann's war crimes trial, "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil." She sums up her observations in the epilogue:
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.
This is what makes terror and torture so horrifying and incomprehensible. The people who carry them out are completely, terribly and terrifyingly, normal.
Lately, my work as a journalist and activist has made me ask how we continue to affirm life in the face of such banal evil. What does it mean to feel the sun on our skin at the beginning of spring, or have children, or eat a delicious dinner with close friends, or fall in love, in a world where such awful things are done so casually by such normal people?
Many friends in Boston helped me start to answer that question in the days after the bombings. Some organized a vigil on Boston Common where friends and strangers came together to cry, to hug, to pray, to sing, and to write out our hopes for a city resurrected. Others began to talk about organizing relief efforts if they were needed. Still others comforted their neighbors as chaplains or ministers. Most remarkably, they all refused to hate, to stereotype, to call for vengeance, and to fall back on naive patriotism or xenophobia.
In "The Myth of Sisyphus," Albert Camus takes up the question of suicide. Writing during World War II, he felt keenly that the old meanings and values had collapsed into an unavoidable nihilism. The answer was neither suicide nor hope, however, but defiance -- "to live and to create," as Camus put, "in the very midst of the desert."
We live in another time where old meanings and values are collapsing. In the figures of completely normal American college students turned terrorists and of torture done at the hands of American soldiers, we are forced to come face-to-face with our own capacity for destruction -- a capacity that is playing itself out in our economy, in our foreign policy and in our very chances for a future on this planet.
My friends knew about all of this, and they knew their actions might come to naught. But they chose to resist anyway. They chose life in the midst of the desert. And, in doing so, they created an oasis.