Culpability Vs. Responsibility: A Lesson from the Boston Marathon

In a column appearing in the April 17, 2013 edition of the New York Times, Thomas Friedman blames Boston’s Patriots Day bombing on the cowardly individuals who prepared and deployed the explosive devices.  It’s true that the evil murderers who attacked us--and only the evil murderers--are unequivocally guilty of the heinous act.  What surprises me is to see Friedman conflate culpability and responsibility.  The terrorists who attacked are culpable, but as a result, we bear responsibilities.
The following paragraph, from Friedman''s piece, particularly disturbs me:
"Cave dwelling is for terrorists.  Americans? We run in the open on our streets – men and women, young and old, new immigrants and foreigners, in shorts not armor, with abandon and never fear, eyes always on the prize, never on all those suspicious bundles on the curb."
Often, when something bad happens, we choose from a variety of potential coping mechanisms. We can summon resilience to help us recover quickly from physiological or emotional shock.  We might activate denial, a trait that gets a bad rap despite its immense value in helping to create stability at the start of crisis.  But beyond coping with the crisis, itself, there is the question of taking responsibility. Personal responsibility. The kind of responsibility, which by definition, you simply can not delegate.
Statistical probability tells us that most suspicious objects will prove to be harmless.  Nonetheless, there is a greater likelihood of harm coming from suspicious objects than from non-suspicious objects.  Friedman proposes that we should never pay attention to suspicious bundles.  NEVER?  In today’s environment??  How about ALWAYS?
When people feel that unfortunate developments have picked on them, it’s easy to understand why they may feel entitled to take things a little easy.  For instance, many cancer patients tell me that being diagnosed with a malignancy is punishment enough.  They don’t feel they should also have to exercise or optimize nutrition.  But it’s precisely at such times when those types of inconvenient lifestyle changes can do most to help.  While most patients have not engaged in behaviors that should have caused tumors to arise and while there’s no point in blaming oneself for contracting cancer (since they are not culpable), a constructive approach would be to accept the responsibilities that arise during treatment, healing and recovery.
The notion that citizens share common values and aspirations is the underpinning of what some still refer to as our "civic traditions." By reporting a suspicious bundle, a responsible citizen can unleash a cascade of good. Someone can seek out the rightful owner of the bundle if it is indeed benign. Or, on the far less likely chance that the bundle constitutes a danger, experts can be summoned to neutralize it. Then, with no suspicious bundle on the curb, subsequent pedestrians can pass by without anxiety. By reporting a suspicious bundle, the responsible citizen has initiated a societal upgrade, improving life for an untold number of people. 
Today we recoil at the idea of others prescribing how we should live, because who has the right to decree what a “good life” should be?  But sometimes, facing an ordeal can move us to make responsible decisions that we may have previously avoided.
Like most Americans, Friedman cherishes the Founding Fathers’ values of freedom and open society.  Although we are stunned by the hubris of someone’s having planted bombs on Boylston Street--on "Patriots Day", no less, we can’t stand by complacently. We must view the Boston Marathon bombing as yet another wake-up alarm, calling us to act responsibly to protect our essential liberties.   Just as people diagnosed with cancer must implement sound practices of health and prevention, we citizens must be vigilant, particularly when we see suspicious packages, and take responsibility to shun harm.  
Sometimes, if we avoid complacency, tragedy can propel us to extend ourselves and enable us to triumph.  Sometimes, tragedies can bring about positive outcomes, both for individuals and for society. 
Until next Monday, Shalom.
Thanks for reading the 25th of 52 posts to this blog. To book workshops, speaking gigs or concerts with me, please visit our website ( or send an email directly to [email protected]