Why The Boston Bombing Reminded Me of Sigmund Freud

In his book Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud touches on the two conflicting drives that exist within us all. The life drive and the death drive. According to Freud, the life drive pursues positive experiences of pleasure and happiness, while the death drive protects happiness by avoiding pain. Rather than aspire for what it wants, the death drive avoids that which it does not. Both seek happiness, though their approaches conflict. Traumas like the Boston bombing force this tension into the limelight, and offer an opportunity to reassess what we are willing to risk for the life we want, and conversely, how far we will go to avoid pain.

Suppose there is a fox that eats rabbits and is preyed upon by bears. When the fox sees a rabbit, its life drive urges it to pounce, to get what it wants. However in order to get at the rabbit, the fox must cross a field, and risk being seen by a bear. Rather than pursuing the rabbit, its death drive advises staying put.

Both drives serve a purpose, and both can be taken too far. If we listen to our life drive only, we’ll take unnecessary risks, and pay the consequences – the fox will soon be eaten. If we listen to our death drive only, we’ll never take the risks necessary to get what we want – the fox will never cross the field. Neither is inherently good or bad. What is inherent is the tension that exists between the two drives. In Boston, we recently saw this tension express itself.

On April 15th, 2013 three people were killed and others wounded by a homemade bomb that was detonated at the finish line of Boston’s famous marathon. How Boston and the nation responded to this trauma, and the subsequent gunfight between the suspects and military, SWAT and police, gave us a glimpse into where along the life/death drive spectrum we have collectively, however implicitly, chosen to settle.

A fox that survives a bear attack while in pursuit of a rabbit will think twice the next time it goes hunting. It will look out for bears. This hesitation can lead to wise precaution on the one hand or a debilitating post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on the other. A fox that develops severe PTSD may become terrified of chasing rabbits, something that was once central to its normal daily life. If the fox is healthy, it might take heightened precautions for a time, but soon will recover and return to its rabbit-chasing livelihood. Boston responded to the bombing and shootout by shutting itself down – confining citizens to their homes or closest shelter. Was this a wise response? Was it informed precaution? A symptom of PTSD? Did the lockdown help Boston recover?

I visited Boston three days after the shut down. My cousin Nofar Soffer, an Israeli immigrant, lives in Brookline, some fifteen minutes from Watertown, where the shootout took place. On the night of Thursday April 18th, when one of the bombers escaped a shootout with police, my cousin was told to lock her doors and not to open them unless someone in uniform was knocking. She says she was “terrified, terrified, terrified, like they made such a big deal of it.” She thinks that the decision to shut down the city “exacerbated the stress of the people, it was like I was inside my house when all the doors were locked and I was freaking out.”

I asked her what she would have done differently. She says, “maybe to preserve some amount of normal life, like secure train and bus stops and maybe schools so that they didn’t have to shut down the city, but it’s like what would you do? What if they didn’t shut [the city] down and he killed some people, who would be to blame? I think they were just being super safe, I mean they went 110%, they shut the whole city down, like no one’s leaving their house, end of story, like they treated it like it was a war and it was only one person, one nineteen-year-old they were looking for.”

Soffer’s internal conflict over how the city responded is a perfect example of the tension between the life and death drive within us all. In the face of uncertainty Soffer wanted to, cautiously, preserve “some amount of normal life.”

Other Bostonians like Lily Barnard, a student at Tufts University, didn’t seem phased by the lockdown. Though Barnard stayed indoors during the lockdown, many students on Tuft’s campus treated the day like a vacation to enjoy the sunny weather.

Barnard was glad people were told to stay indoors; she had planned on jogging to Watertown that morning, just around the time the second shootout took pace. Thanks to the lockdown, she never did. She also described a sentiment on campus: frustration with the Tufts administration for not cancelling school the day after the bombing, despite two Tufts students being sent to the hospital. For Barnard and many on Tufts’ campus, the lockdown was a welcome safety precaution and recognition of what took place. There were no real negative impacts felt from the lockdown on campus and, after all, she says, the consequences of allowing people to go about their days could have been much worse.

At Harvard Square, I spoke with Susan Jones, 46, a currently homeless Boston resident. Jones told me that during the lockdown, all the homeless were “sort of crammed into various shelters.” She said that, “some people who are used to being outside got anxiety from feeling like they had to stay in somewhere. When you can’t go out and do what you want or need to do, being crammed in, I’d imagine that’s what jail would feel like.” Jones was initially angry at law enforcement and the military for letting the man get away and forcing her community to suspend its daily activities. For her, not being able to “go out and do” what she wanted or needed had direct impacts her wellbeing. Nonetheless, she also expressed the gratitude she felt when the danger had passed.

Soffer, Barnard, and Jones don’t have definitive opinions about the lockdown, because they’ll never know if continuing normal life would have had unwanted consequences. For Soffer, the lockdown was more traumatic than the bombing itself; for Barnard ,it was a benign recognition of the bombing’s significance, and for Jones, it was an annoyance. All of these sentiments, however, are coupled with conditions that weigh the cost and benefit of living normally in the face of danger. In these uncertain times when trauma is inevitable, the balance we strike today between the life and death drive will shape not only how we recover from future trauma, it will shape how we live with it. The bombing and lockdown offers us an excellent opportunity to re-examine the balance we have struck, democratically or not, between wise precaution and the manic avoidance of pain.