A Boston firefighter, one of many who rushed in to aid bomb victims last Monday, told a TV interviewer, "We will win. I promise you, we will win."
As a first responder, he's a genuine hero. But his prediction, while understandable, is vague and even misguided. We are increasingly a nation focused on winning at a time when the world around us doesn't often allow it.
Perhaps by the time you read this, authorities will have pieced together enough information to explain the actions of the brothers from the Russian republic of Chechnya who were apparently behind the Marathon horror. But how will this help us win anything?
Maybe the Boston bombers were deranged like the Newtown killer Adam Lanza, except armed with bombs instead of guns. Maybe the culprits were similar to Timothy McVeigh, the Army vet who bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people. McVeigh's "politics" were essentially domestic; he resented police power and what he perceived as intrusion on Second Amendment rights.
In the post-9/11 world we look with suspicion at those around us and worry about the next act of violence. As proud Americans, our instinct is to "win." Give us a foe, we plead, and we will surely prevail.
But we don't always have specific enemies; we have "terrorists." Anyone who sets off bombs in public, or shoots up a school room, is a terrorist. But since 9/11 the term has properly been reserved for organized international enemies. Any use of the word triggers a specific and profound string of emotions and sets off political rhetoric around the world.
Events immediately following the Marathon underscore how confused we are, and how our desire to win is clouded by the vagaries of our times. President Obama, in his initial statement to the nation, wisely declined to use the term "terrorism." Yet, within hours the White House was compelled, in part by media and political pressure, to apply the label. Later, at the memorial in Boston, the term was never uttered.
As it happened, the Boston bombing was followed by a strange case in which letters were sent to several lawmakers, including President Obama, containing a chemical that may have been the poison ricin. Rudy Giuliani, the New York mayor at the time of 9/11, was one of several who quickly stated publicly that the letters and the Boston bombing were most certainly linked. Even as Giuliani, on Fox News, spewed his theory of widespread terrorism, authorities were confirming they had a suspect, a long-time writer of hate mail to elected officials.
And when reporters, including CNN's John King, rushed on the air at mid-week with an erroneous story that a "dark skinned" suspect had been picked up in the Boston case, it seemed to confirm for many that, indeed, we were attacked again by Middle Eastern jihadists.
By the time a fertilizer plant exploded in Texas Wednesday night, the nation's electronic media were heard to state repeatedly, "We don't know if this is connected in any way to the Boston bombing."
These are the understandable signs of a stressed nation that has yet to fully recover from 9/11. We wait for the next incident to ignite both our fears and our desire to win.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick selected the right words Thursday when he said the bombing left him "shocked, confused and angry." As a nation, we are all those things.
Time will, to some degree, remove the shock. Investigators are likely to produce details that will address much confusion. But what about our anger?
Whether the enemy is a foreign force or domestic malcontents, we must address our own anger. We can't give in to our fears, nor can we be too quick to label them out of convenience.
That's the only way to win.
Peter Funt can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com. His new book, "Cautiously Optimistic," will be published in May 2013.