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Elie Wiesel on Boston’s bombs: send in the philosophers

by Jonah Lowenfeld

April 16, 2013 | 9:49 pm

In the wake of the bombs that exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, law enforcement agencies are combing through evidence to better understand what took place.

But Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, who is a professor at Boston University, said that to properly respond to this terrorist act, the country needs to engage in some very big, very broad thinking.

“If I were the President,” Wiesel said in an interview with the Jewish Journal on April 16, “I would create a special commission of educators and philosophers and social philosophers and thinkers, to think it through what is happening to our land, if this can happen.”

This week, Wiesel is speaking with students at Chapman University, in his third year as the school's visiting Distinguished Presidential Fellow. And it’s safe to say that, as perhaps the best known Holocaust survivor living today, Wiesel is more often on the receiving end of queries about how societies can descend into violence.

But, faced with this fresh new horror, this still barely understood act of terror, the 84-year-old writer and teacher was left with the same questions as everyone else.

“Usually, a terrorist wants people to know why he did it,” Wiesel said. “Since the 19th century, when terrorism began assassinations in Europe, they signed their assassinations. What joy does the assassin draw from killing people? Try to understand that. You can’t.”

Wiesel was just as confounded by the bomber’s choice of target, a nonviolent sporting event in the city that he called “the Athens of today,” for its concentration of colleges and universities.

At a time when many observers and pundits are holding their tongues in light of the dearth of known facts about the attack, the fact that Wiesel is left with questions about Boston is not surprising. But it is notable that Wiesel saw what took place in Boston as part of a baffling epidemic of violence that included last year’s shootings in Sandy Hook and Aurora, the 2011 shooting that gravely wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and other acts of terror.

“The appeal to violence and to extreme violence -- what is it? What brings it? What motivates it?” Wiesel asked.

“I don’t have the answer to the question,” he continued, which is why he proposed the Presidential commission. In Wiesel’s view, what the world is seeing and experiencing today is nothing short of an historic trend, one that must not be ignored.

“We cannot just turn the page and say, 'Oh, it will pass,'” he said.

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