Carnage and Courage

What One Runner Says Boston Terror Attack Taught Us

Lessons of Boston: Noam Neusner, second from right, prepares to run in the Boston Marathon.
Lessons of Boston: Noam Neusner, second from right, prepares to run in the Boston Marathon.

By Noam Neusner

Published April 16, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

On April 15, I was one of the 27,000 runners of the Boston Marathon, and luckily was several blocks away from the tragedy on Boylston Street. Being a runner gives me some insight into the moral depth of those who finished the race and then sprinted back into the carnage.

At the end of a marathon, the runner’s body is depleted of every remaining ounce of strength. The body has begun to extract energy by tapping deep fat stores, causing searing pain. The liver has gone into a semi-shock: It releases enzymes that remain in the body for a few weeks. The legs are threadbare, the lungs sear and the heart is pounding dangerously. What remains, for most runners, is mere willpower, and not much of it.

Despite all that, several of the finishers sprinted into danger and administered aid to those injured and maimed by the bombs.

What do we make of this? First, courage and heroism are moral qualities. We are hard-wired to flee from danger, not run to it. What we saw that day, and see every day in every community where crisis occurs, is the triumph of human goodness. To preserve life, even at great threat to ourselves – that is a learned response and a principled choice. That so many people share it is a testament to the goodness of the world, despite the evil that lurks within it.

Second, when something is important enough, we can overcome pain. We set limits every day on what we can do and what we can accomplish. But when life calls us to reach beyond the limits, we manage. That is true not just for runners finishing a marathon, but also those living their final days and willing themselves to see one more grandchild born, one more final reunion, before they pass.

There are now people in hospitals in Boston who are waking up to a life without legs. They will, I expect, compete in future years’ marathons in the wheelchair division even though they would never have considered competing as runners. This, too, is a uniquely human response — when something is important to us, we summon energy beyond what we once thought possible. Limits are often arbitrary; only love decides what we can do. If we love something enough, we will persevere.

Third, fate is an ugly and unjust way to construct the universe. Those killed and maimed were not chosen and they were not targeted. They just were present. There was no skill in avoiding the explosions and there was no moral choice involved. A world constructed around the vicissitudes of fate and fortune is fundamentally unjust — it gives no room for human agency and human choice.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.