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 that 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 a walk-off win.
I imagine some in the crowd dismissed those blasts as celebratory fireworks, the way we convince ourselves that it is a car backfiring on the freeway - not a gunshot; it’s only a clap of thunder, not a bomb exploding on the railway line. But then there was that plume of grey smoke, its unmistakable stench, 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, a post-card perfect 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, it offers 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 leave your house, 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, at The Errigle Inn, with my great college friend Ruth. When we returned to her brother’s house, we learned that her car had been stolen and set ablaze to create 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.