"What's nihilism?" my eighth-grader wanted to know.
He was playing Words With Friends on his iPod Touch with his grandmother, and she was not letting the fact the kid is only 13 impede her. Anyway, in the years after 9/11 - and now Boston - our children will learn one way or another.
"It's a belief in nothingness," I told him, trying to remember what I learned way back when in philosophy class at Boston College.
Nihilists, my Webster's confirmed later, often maintain that social, political and economic institutions must be eliminated through terrorism. But nihilism is primarily a term for philosophers. A rejection of customary beliefs in morality or religion or even the possibility of real knowledge, it is the ultimate destructive force.
It appears now that what happened in Boston was the work of terrorists, although as I write this the precise motive they had is unclear. The other possibility had been that it was some depraved lunatic mired in a meaningless existence and trying to impose that on the rest of us. But either way, this was nihilism and exactly the opposite of everything most Americans, including those running and watching the marathon in Boston, plainly believe in.
Boston College sits at the top of Heartbreak Hill. I used to stand there during the marathon and cheer for the runners whose determination and pain and striving for a simple goal still distant could make you giddy and tearful all at the same time.
If you have never watched a marathon, you should. You'll be amazed at who finishes, and why. It's not all 22-year-old jocks, not by any stretch. There are people who look like they could barely walk four blocks who simply will themselves to run over 26 miles. They push forward with mere grit, and are carried too by something just as powerful: a community of strangers standing 10-feet deep and applauding their perseverance.
"It just seems to me that the whole city and state comes together," said Dan Harvey, a 65-year-old Lake Mills dentist who ran Boston this year at an exceedingly fast pace and finished well before the bombs detonated. "There are like a half a million people who line the route. Almost every foot, there are spectators. People are just screaming at you every step of the way."
For something often described as the ultimate test of solitary achievement, the Boston Marathon is actually, with all its spectators, a surprisingly communal event. That's what the victims who were killed - little 8-year-old Martin Richard, beautiful 29-year-old Krystle Campbell and 23-year-old Lu Lingzi - were: spectators. Lingzi - a native of Shenyang, China - was at Boston University working on a degree in actuarial sciences, the study of risk, something that can be quantified, though never eliminated.
"Oh my God," I gasped, sitting in my attic when I read that.
"What?" asked my 18-year-old daughter, who was downstairs but heard me.
She is planning to study the same thing in college next year. Last fall, the two of us toured BU, as well as BC and Northeastern, which is a stone's throw from where the bombs exploded. If the joy of Boston is communal, the pain and fear are as well.
Harvey, who has run Boston nine times now, said the area is so crowded and difficult to control that it had actually occurred to him in years past that a terrorist might see an opportunity there. But that never dissuaded him, and won't in the future.
Now back in Wisconsin, he says he has been glued to the TV, has been keeping abreast of the investigation. Justice, after all, is a way of giving meaning to the lives of those who were lost and injured, of rebutting the terror and the nihilism. The other way is to continue on.
"You have to get out and live your life," he said.
The Boston Marathon "will be just as big next year, if not more so."