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Across America, a week of chaos, horror – and hope

Joy Arcolano, who's home is near the location where the previous night a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings was arrested, hugs a neighbor as members of the media, look on, Saturday, April 20, 2013, in Watertown, Mass. Police captured Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, the surviving Boston Marathon bombing suspect, in a backyard boat after a wild car chase and gun battle earlier in the day left his older brother dead. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Joy Arcolano, who's home is near the location where the previous night a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings was arrested, hugs a neighbor as members of the media, look on, Saturday, April 20, 2013, in Watertown, Mass. Police captured Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, the surviving Boston Marathon bombing suspect, in a backyard boat after a wild car chase and gun battle earlier in the day left his older brother dead. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Moment after nail-biting moment, the events shoved us through a week that felt like an unremitting series of tragedies: Deadly bombs. Poison letters. A town shattered by a colossal explosion. A violent manhunt that paralyzed a major city, emptying streets of people and filling them with
heavily armed police and piercing sirens.

Amid the chaos came an emotional Senate gun control vote that inflamed American divisions and evoked memories of the Newtown, Conn., massacre. And through it all, torrential rain pushed the Mississippi River toward flood levels.

“All in all it’s been a tough week,” President Obama said Friday night. “But we’ve seen the character of our country once more.”

America was rocked this week, in rare and frightening ways. We are only beginning to make sense of a series of events that moved so fast, so furiously as to almost defy attempts to figure them out. But beneath the pain, as the weekend arrived, horror was counteracted by hope.

“We inhabit a mysterious world,” the Rev. Roberto Miranda said at a prayer service for the Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people, inflicted life-changing injuries on scores more and shook the sense of security that had slowly returned to America since 9/11.

“The dilemma of evil is that even as it carries out its dark, sinister work,” Miranda said, “it always ends up strengthening good.”

That evil arrived Monday when twin bombs exploded near the finish line of the marathon. Although the scale of the Boston attack was far smaller than the destruction of the World Trade Center, a dozen years’ worth of modern media evolution made it reverberate in inescapable ways.

In 2001, we could walk away from our televisions. In 2013, bad news follows us everywhere. It’s on our computers at work and home, on our phones, on social media.

“There’s no place to run, no place to hide,” said Dr. Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at California State University in Los Angeles. “It’s like perpetual shock. There’s no off button. That’s relatively unprecedented. We’re going to have to pay the price for that.”

Steffen Kaplan, a social media specialist in New Jersey, tried his best to protect his young son from the madness. His television stayed off. He browsed the internet with caution. But reality finally intruded at a local pizzeria, where a TV was playing images of the injured in Boston.

“What’s going on?” his son asked. “Nothing,” Kaplan replied. “That’s just a movie.”

Kaplan fears the world his son will inherit. To cope, “I rely on faith in humanity,” he said. “If we raise our children correctly, somehow, some way, humanity will prevail.”

The downward spiral of events steepened Tuesday morning. As authorities in Boston searched for leads, and the nation debated whether the perpetrators were terrorism or a different type of killer, congressional leaders said a letter containing the poison ricin had been mailed to Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi. It touched off memories of the jumbled days after 9/11, when letters containing anthrax were sent to politicians and media organizations.

“I think it’s fair to say this entire week we’ve been in pretty direct confrontation with evil,” Secretary of State John Kerry said.

Late Wednesday night, reports emerged of an explosion outside Waco, Texas. As Thursday dawned, the magnitude became clear: A fertilizer plant had blown up with such force, it registered as an earthquake and wrecked homes, apartments, a school and a nursing home. As of Saturday morning, 14 people were dead.

“Is this week feeling a little apocalyptic to anyone else?” tweeted Jessica Coen, editor in chief of the Jezebel.com blog. “Boston. Poison. Explosions. Floods. Tomorrow, locusts.”

Recent Aprils have often been cruel to America. In 1993, dozens died in the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. In 1995, a domestic terrorist killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing. In 1999, it was Columbine High School. In 2007, Virginia Tech.

But April 2013’s convergence of events is extremely rare, statisticians say.

Such calculations are based on the likelihood of each individual tragedy, said Michael Baron, a professor of statistics at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Baron has no actual data on how often this week’s events have separately occurred throughout history. But he estimated that if a terrorist attack occurs once every four years, a suspicious mailing once per year and an industrial accident twice per year, there is a .000004 probability of them all happening in the same week – “once in 4,808 years.”

Finally, on Friday morning, the nation awoke to news that one suspect and a police officer had been killed – after the suspects hurled explosives during a car chase and had a shootout in the residential community of Watertown, Mass.

In Chicago, the cover of the Redeye newspaper Friday was a giant red RESET button. “That was a rough one. Who’s ready for next week?” the caption said.

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