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Reflections on The Marathon Bombing, Trauma, and Healing

She’s had too many nightmares.

Seven years after losing her daughter to a homemade bomb that detonated beside the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Patricia Campbell wants nothing more than to be free of the anger and depression that still haunt her. She wishes the thought of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was sentenced to death in 2015 for the terrorist attack that led to the deaths of her daughter, Krystle, and four others, could fade away with time.

But when a federal appeals court in July overturned the jury's death sentence and ordered a new trial to determine whether Tsarnaev, now 27, should live or die, it drew her back to the indelible horror of that April afternoon that wounded more than 260 others. (from The Boston Globe, 8/15/20)


Dear Globe Op-Ed editors and Reporters,

I was the chaplain on-call the night of April 18, 2013, when MIT officer Sean Collier was brought to the MGH emergency department after being shot and killed by the Tsarnaev brothers. The night remains vivid for me, and in the same way other bombing survivors have been haunted since that week, so have I. I will forever remember the heroic efforts of the MGH emergency staff, the chaos in the hospital, and the expressions on the faces of the Collier family when we informed them about their son and brother. It was akin to watching someone be murdered in front of your eyes. 

During the afternoon of the bombing itself, I and my colleagues fanned through the hospital to support patients, families, and staff. There was blood all over the floor of the ED. There were patients who had, moments before, had a leg amputated. I recall one nurse telling a family, “It’s a good kind of amputation, below the knee, best for a prosthetic later.” Everyone needed support.

At Collier’s funeral later on the MIT field, I sat among the incredible MGH staff, surrounded by police officers from everywhere, and we listened to James Taylor and Joe Biden, and when we applauded, the sound was haunting itself, muted as it was because all the officers were wearing their dress uniform white gloves.

Shortly afterward, like the family members cited in the Globe, I experienced flashbacks, nightmares, and virtually all the symptoms of PTSD that a survivor experiences, either first hand or vicariously. I could not concentrate, eat, or sleep, and I panicked at loud noises; finally, I spent a few days in a hospital and had to stop working due to the anxiety, depression, and fear that had so affected my body and mind; it was incomprehensible, and felt like I had been poisoned. 

PTSD includes documented and well-researched biological changes in brain chemistry that keep the fight-or-flight reaction active even long after such a traumatic incident. Triggered by recent hospital work, and other trauma, I stopped working again in May of this year and recently spent time with other first-responders (cops, EMTS, firefighters, nurses, and so on) to help process and debrief current trauma (such as working with COVID) and going back to that night and beyond. There is an organization in Massachusetts called Onsite Academy that is dedicated to such work which has been immensely helpful to such front-line workers.

So it is no surprise that those of us directly affected by the bombing will have feelings about the recent court decision not to execute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. 

As a practicing Zen Buddhist, at the time of the bombing I noticed that I felt at odds with others in my community who expressed compassion for the killers. Having seen from a few feet away what murder, dismemberment, and brain injuries looked like, I felt there was no benefit to the world at allowing Tsarnaev to live. At the time, no amount of meditation could have helped me to be gentle with him, had we met in person. 

In spiritual circles, and in legal and ethical circles, we have to draw the line at what we can accept, and we have to include what is beneficial. There is no question that certain evils in the world need to be kept separate from what enables the good, and perhaps execution is one method in which to do this. 

But Tsarnaev now represents no threat if he spends his life in prison. We have to examine ourselves and try to imagine if we will feel any better if he is dead. Whenever any of us is abused, hurt, or harmed in any way, there is the deep urge to want the perpetrator of the violence to disappear. To be gone, so that we don’t have to think about him or her any longer, so that we don’t have to fear them. 

But we also have to wonder if vengeance will take away those thoughts and feelings. I can’t say. 

In addition, every abuse or trauma survivor wants one thing in particular from the perpetrator to help our hearts lighten, even a little. We want an apology. Since Tsarnaev will never acknowledge or apologize for the harm he did, we have no choice but to let go of that wish.

None of this is easy. It is all heartbreaking. We would be better off not putting him on trial again and instead letting him disappear and dissolve in prison. And who knows - maybe in that process he might find some healing himself, and so might we. He is receiving punishment. It is enough.

Where we - me, anyway - would probably better spend our energies would be in healing ourselves. Healing from trauma is possible. It takes time, it demands the care of others. Various therapies can be amazingly helpful. Instead of spending money and time on a new trial of Tsarnaev, I would prefer that funds be made available for the many of us who still suffer from the trauma of that week and its aftermath, who still need help to come back to life ourselves.

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