Like a lot of people, I spent some time yesterday checking on friends involved with the Boston Marathon and trying to find out what happened. A good friend of ours had actually just finished the race some 20 minutes before and saw one of the explosions - luckily, she was a block away and wasn't hurt. I know many people who have similar stories. And sadly, there are over a hundred whose stories don't end as well, including (as of this writing) three tragic deaths.
There will be many questions in the coming days, starting with Who did this? and going through How? and Why? A few fringe voices have already cited their favorite suspects (Muslims, natch), but for the most part public conversation has been subdued and sensible. We've seen events like this before - the most direct parallel is the Centennial Park bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, which was a lone domestic bomber. So for the most part, people aren't rushing to conclusions, which is good.
But there is also an opportunity here to ask larger questions, the ones we never really get around to thinking about. In cases like this, the violence is obviously horrible and indefensible - what legitimate argument can be made for killing an innocent 8 year old kid? We know (at least, most of us know) that this kind of indiscriminate targeting of civilians is wrong.
The question we don't want to ask is, what kind of violence is right? When is it acceptable to use lethal force against other human beings? We've done an awful lot of this overseas in the last decade - even conservative estimates for Iraq and Afghanistan put the casualty figures in the hundreds of thousands. Inside the US we allow ourselves to get distracted by other issues: guns, race, class, and others. Where was the debate after the Trayvon Martin shooting about the circumstances under which it's appropriate to use deadly force in self-defense? It was quickly drowned out by cries of racism on the one side and gun rights on the other.
So as a society, a lot of violence is done on our behalf, and we inflict a lot of violence on each other. But we never get around to talking about the basic question: when, if ever, is violence justified?
I have no doubt that, if we did have a national conversation about this, we would discover a strong diversity of opinion. I have blogged before (here and here) about gut-level views about legitimate views of violence that I find wrong, even abhorrent, which are nevertheless held (in an unexamined fashion) by significant numbers of people. So I don't expect any kind of quick, easy national consensus. These are hard questions.
But because they are hard questions, we need to tackle them head-on. Rules and principles about the legitimate use of force are too important to be left to the category of "you can have yours and I can have mine", because if my personal sense of allowable force includes carrying a gun and shooting whenever I feel threatened, that has an immediate and significant impact on the world you live in. We can, and should, strive to do better than an everyone-for-themselves Hobbesian anarchy.
We tend to put instances like the Boston tragedy, or even the Newtown or Aurora shootings, in their own category, divorced from the rest of reality. But in each of these cases somebody made a decision that lethal violence was justified, even required. Sometimes the people who make those decisions are mentally ill, but not always - neither Terry Nichols nor Timothy McVeigh entered an insanity plea after the Oklahoma City bombing. People make these decisions in context with all the other decisions about violence that get made every day. As American philosopher Elbert Hubbard famously wrote, "So long as governments set the example of killing their enemies, private individuals will occasionally kill theirs."
So by all means let us mourn the tragedy of Boston, comfort the victims, and come together with resolve not to let this kind of senseless violence diminish us. But let us also use it to propel us to a greater understanding of what violence is, and isn't, for. It's high time we had a serious conversation about when we should, or shouldn't, be killing our enemies.