It's now a week after the Boston Marathon bombing and somehow I feel people are expecting me to comment.
In ancient Greece, tragedy was seen differently than we see it today. Most people are aware of the tragedy "Oedipus Rex," that Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. To the people at the time, that was not itself the tragedy - these were events foretold and inevitable - what was tragic was that Oedipus brought upon himself the three curses that could be bestowed by the gods: exile, blindness and insanity. Death was not seen as tragic, as it happens to everyone and is often the end of pain. Blindness meant that one was dependent upon others. Exile meant that one was separated from those upon whom one could depend. Madness meant that one could not depend upon oneself. The three together was unthinkable.
More modern thinkers have seen tragedy in terms of hopelessness and futility, of pointlessness, meaninglessness and emptiness and of arbitrariness. I believe that true tragedy is transformative; loss, no matter how grievous, is not tragic unless it changes who one truly is at heart. To that, I see three true tragedies: 1) Being solely and completely responsible for another and failing. 2) Being completely dependent upon others and knowing that help will be refused, withheld or withdrawn. 3) Being forced to abandon one's hopes and dreams without being able to replace them. It is unlikely that anyone reading this has experienced these.
I experienced all three in one week. I was an angry young man. Being inwardly-directed, I was only a danger to myself, but I could see how others would lash out in the same circumstances.
People are questioning how young men "living the American dream" could become a terrorist cell. It is the same to ask how anyone joins a street gang or religious cult and the answer is simple: they offer something that society has failed to supply. They give a sense of control, of commitment, of challenge. They accept those that society chooses to ignore or reject, those that have failed to fit in.
The common view of society to terrorists is: "I am not that. I am better than that. That is wrong. That should not be allowed to exist." The view of terrorists to society is exactly the same. Acknowledgment of the fact that these views are the same is the refutation of "I am not that" and the beginning of healing. We all struggle with the balance between conformity and individualism; we want to belong, but we want to be special, too. In a relatively young country made of immigrants, we have few traditions, allowing each group to choose its own. Most societies have coming-of-age ordeals, things that one does to become a member, to have status, to "arrive."
The closest we have to that, ironically, is running a marathon.