20 April 2013

Sports and Terrorism

"I don't have a single American friend, I don't understand them."
-- Boston terror suspect, killed on 19 April 2013

For anyone having trouble understanding Americans, allow me to help you.  Nobody can help the person who authored the words quoted above, and it's doubtful anyone can help his younger brother, who is in custody right now.  I couldn't possibly speculate on the motives of those involved in what happened in Boston this past week.  People in various agencies will do their best to sort all that out.  What immediately stood out for me was the contrast between the scene at the conclusion of a marathon and the desire to end life.

I have never run a marathon, never come close to running anywhere near 26-plus miles (42-plus km) in a single day.  One of my cousins did it, and I was extremely proud of and amazed by what he did.  Imagine what it takes to run a marathon.  Weeks and weeks of training, disciplined diet, targeted exercises, and putting one's mind into the proper place to endure such a grueling task are all part of the preparation.  People who run marathons do so for a variety of reasons.  They may want to improve fitness, achieve a goal they thought unreachable, or maybe they hope to inspire someone else.  From what marathon runners have told me, crossing that finish line is a special moment.  Runners feel great about themselves and loved ones are inspired by what they've just witnessed.  The finish line of a marathon is a celebration.

On 15 April 2013, the finish line of the Boston Marathon turned from celebration to tragedy.  One of the great days in sports became a day during which people were killed and other people were maimed.  For anyone who doesn't understand Americans, or, more generally, people capable of courage and empathy, traits in the majority of human beings, regardless of nationality, look at what happened this past week.  Immediately after the bombs went off, people ran into the smoke to help people they had never met.  Nobody was asked what religion they belong to, what political party they support, or what sports team they support.  None of that mattered.  People simply helped their fellow creatures because those creatures were suffering.

Think about the medical professionals who tended to the wounded at the bombing scene, during ambulance transport, and at hospitals.  Many more health professionals have a lot of work ahead of them as they care for those physically and mentally scarred.  All will be helped and it won't matter what color the victims are, how the victims feel about various social issues, or what the victims' countries of origin happen to be.

Consider the images of the large number of law enforcement officers charged with keeping people safe and hunting down the suspects.  Those officers were made up of people of both sexes, all colors, numerous religious and nonreligious beliefs, political alliances, and so on.  A police officer is charged with protecting people, even people who may be as different from that officer as one can imagine.

Have those who don't understand us seen images from sporting events?  It was common to see baseball and basketball games with slogans like "We are all Boston" from shirts to big stadium screens.  As a passionate alumnus of both Vanderbilt University and Indiana University, I root for my Commodores and my Hoosiers.  I especially root for my teams when we play against bitter rivals like Tennessee and Purdue.  But if terrorism ever hits my rivals' campuses in Knoxville or West Lafayette, I'll feel solidarity with those who suffer and I'll want to help.  When people were murdered at Virginia Tech in 2007, I was warmed by the fact that not only did my own school help, but so did Virginia Tech's rival, the University of Virginia.  When tornadoes tore through Tuscaloosa in 2011, people from Auburn came to help, and there is no more bitter rivalry in sports than the one between Alabama and Auburn.

Nothing I write here is meant to suggest that all sports fans or all Americans are perfect people.  Many of my fellow creatures are quite capable of behaving badly toward one another.  There are roughly 45 murders per day in my country, a number embarrassingly too high by 45.  But most of us are able to put aside tribalism for solidarity when circumstances demand such a replacement.  We may feel more comfortable around those who look like ourselves or share common beliefs or root for the same sporting teams or vote for the same political parties.  It is natural to feel comfort in similarity and caution when facing differences.  A long, long time ago, it helped that our ancestors felt solidarity around each other and wary of lions and tigers, to give a cartoonish example.  In civilized 21st-century societies around the globe, people are enlightened enough to know that some differences among humans are trite and some differences help make societies stronger.  For those not lucky enough to have born into enlightened societies, know that there are many of us who feel solidarity with those seeking freedom.

Sport often brings out the best in people.  Athletes try to better themselves and inspire and entertain others.  The events in Boston gave us a vivid contrast between the best and worst of what human beings can do.  For those who don't understand America, I urge you to find a television and watch the Boston Marathon in 2014.  Bombs and the random taking of human life did not create the solidarity most Americans feel for people in need, they merely revealed what was already there.

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