As I’ve written before, the word “bullying” is broadly applied to many situations where it really isn’t relevant. But perhaps acts of terrorism are situations where it is.
This week in Boston, the issue has special meaning for us. Are terrorists, like bullies, intentionally targeting us for a campaign of cruelty from which we can’t defend ourselves? Theoretically, bullying has three characteristics: it’s intentional, repetitive, and takes advantage of a power imbalance. Like bullies, what terrorists do is certainly intentional – it’s no accident that people died, or were horribly injured, a week ago at the Boston Marathon; that’s undoubtedly exactly what these men intended. And what we’re seeing is also repetitive – terrorism would have much less impact if it was an isolated incident; it’s intended to be a Damacles Sword, hanging over us like a perpetual threat. Just like bullying.
But there’s one important way that terrorism is nothing like bullying. Bullying depends upon a power imbalance – the bully has more power than the target, who’s not able to defend themselves. In the past, that power might have often been physical prowess; today, it’s more commonly social status and power. When power is psychological in nature, it isn’t always absolute; your boss may have true power over you, but the most popular kid in school may not have any actual leverage. Much of the time, social power is in the mind of the beholder. Someone is socially powerful because we decide that he’s socially powerful. Similarly, if we decide that those who commit acts of terrorism are not, ultimately, powerful, than they aren’t. That doesn’t mean that they don’t do damage, even terrible damage; but it can mean that we refuse to live in constant fear. Ultimately, it means that we’re refusing to become victims of bullying.
In the end, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev didn’t show us how weak we were, or how vulnerable we are. Instead, their crimes highlighted our strengths and our resiliency, and most of all, our essential goodness. We decided to be heroes instead of victims. I think that that’s the best example we can show our children, some of who are forced to run the gauntlet of cruelty every day, in school and online. By refusing to cede our power, and by refusing to put on the mantle of victimhood, Bostonians showed us all one powerful way to respond when someone tries to bully. As distressing as violence is, it always brings with it the opportunity for bystanders to showcase their best side. As Fred Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”