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Judy’s Notebook: Witnessing the Events in Boston From 5,000 Miles Away

Kauai, Hawaii. Photo by Judy Woodruff/PBS NewsHour.

When the events at the Boston Marathon unfolded last week, I was about as far away as one could be, and still be in the U.S. Yes, halfway across the Pacific Ocean, in Hawaii.

While the reporter in me hates to miss a big story, I admit I felt a touch of relief, especially on the first day, at not having to pry for details in the gruesome aftermath of the bombings. But even from a distance of over 5,000 miles, I was glued to the news; on television, radio and online. Returning to my hotel room from a dinner Thursday night at around 10 p.m. local time, I watched the frantic police manhunt underway at what was 4 a.m. in Watertown, Mass.

It contributed to a kind of dual identity all week: on the one hand, I couldn’t take my eyes off what was happening in Boston. On the other, I was conscious of how fortunate I was to have been invited to participate in a special gathering of Hawaii’s business, educational and philanthropic leaders, on the beautiful island of Kauai.

Called the Hawaii Executive Conference, it has convened once a year since 1963, making this their 50th anniversary. I spent time with a diverse group of remarkable men and women, all looking for the best ways to confront the nation’s and their own state’s future challenges, especially in the economic and educational realms.

They share many of the same worries familiar to us in Washington, over jobs, government spending and the fate of their children’s and grandchildren’s generations.
One striking difference I saw is the youth of some of their most impressive leaders: co-chairs were the 47-year-old president of the Bank of Hawaii, Peter Ho, and the 42-year-old private equity executive, B.J. Kobayashi.

I listened as they spoke of the need for better schools, a clean environment and greater innovation and risk-taking, to attract new jobs to the Aloha State. They heard a pep talk from AOL founder and entrepreneur Steve Case, a Hawaii native who urged them to look for ways to invest in their own state. Case’s wife, Jean, who has become an expert in interactive technologies and social media, also spoke. The message from the Cases and other internet and investment pioneers was “take risks” and “embrace failure,” advice they said applies to anyone interested in innovating.

The group also heard from Gary Knell, president of our sister news organization, NPR, explaining how news gathering today has to innovate in its own way to survive, given dizzying changes in technology. The era of one or two deadlines a day is gone; they are constant and the public not only expects us to keep up, but also to embrace their growing engagement in what we do. I agreed with his analysis and devoted much of the rest of my remarks to Washington’s gridlock and the country’s current partisan divide.

Still, that dual identity meant that for all of us at the conference, for all the focus on what’s new and how do we keep pace with change, there was an ever-present concern with Boston. Before we understood the magnitude of what had happened, there was a little conversation around whether the news media was making too much of it.

But as the toll of dead and wounded quickly became clear, that shifted to a sense that, once again, that the United States had been the target of something terrible. And unlike other countries where attacks have sadly become commonplace, in the Middle East and parts of Europe and Asia, the U.S. doesn’t treat them with complacency.

Four innocents killed in Boston by ruthless terrorists — strikes just as hard at the heart of Americans living in Hawaii, as it does in Florida, Texas or North Dakota. We Americans mourn every death and every person injured. There is nothing to be “accepted” about what happened in Boston. It’s a measure of our national character, of the value we place on human life, that we celebrate every soul lost, from eight year old Martin Richard, to 23-year-old Lu Lingzi the Chinese graduate student studying at Boston University.

As far away as we were on the remote island of Kauai, in Hawaii, we never doubted we were part of the same community as the people of Boston, horrified at the violence, mourning the loss of life, thinking of how Hawaiians might help by sending aid, and reminded that we share common values of respect for political differences and for human life. The national partisan divide that many deplore, seemed to fade for a day or two. The awful events so far away, reminded us of what binds us together as Americans.

Editor’s note: An original version of this story was incorrectly edited to state that events on April 19 occurred in Watertown, Conn. They happened in Watertown, Mass.

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