A lifelong resident of Boston, Liam Day reflects on his city’s resiliency in the face of terror and the need to wrestle with the questions the bombings raise.
Last year, about the same time I typed the first words of this essay, I contemplated taking a walk down to the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The weather was, as it was yesterday and so often is, as if by divine dispensation, on this day every year, perfectly springlike: cool with a thin layer of clouds. In other words, perfect weather for running a marathon.
As I wrote later that evening:
Marathon Monday—Patriots Day—is my favorite day of the year. For 364 days, we are, perhaps, the rudest city in America. We walk down the street with our eyes fixed straight ahead and, if anyone says, “Good Morning,” we give them, at best, a sidelong glance and a curt nod.
Marathon Monday, though, is a seasonal ritual, a ceremony, almost, to honor the gods that restore the earth to splendor after winter’s long hibernation. Every spring, as the last dirty snowbanks melt and we can finally put away the thick winter jackets and, maybe, though not always, turn off the heat, Boston’s denizens emerge from their homes and their dorms to line the 26.2 mile course from Hopkinton to Copley Square.
Of course, I didn’t wind up taking that walk a year ago. Before I could pull myself away from my desk in the back of our apartment, my wife informed me a bomb had gone off at the marathon’s finish line. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening glued to my laptop, following various Twitter feeds and browsing major news sites to get the latest updates.
Later that same week, the city was all but shut down as police spent a night and a day in pursuit of the two men who planted the bombs that interrupted the marathon and shattered so many of the lives of the runners and spectators caught in the explosions.
In the months since, life has gone on. The city’s residents rallied to the cry of Boston Strong. A memorial fund was established to compensate the victims and their families. David Ortiz perfectly summed up our attitude in a pregame ceremony at Fenway Park the week after the events. “This is our fucking city.”
As if infected with the grit and determination shown by so many in the minutes, hours, weeks, and months after the bombing, the Red Sox, who finished last in the AL East in 2012, would go on to win the World Series, their third in a decade. A long winter, longer than usual, settled in. Snow came early and lingered late. Just last week we awoke to yet another dusting.
But here we were on a beautiful spring day and Boston’s streets were once again lined with spectators, watching, in fitting fashion, the first American win the men’s marathon in 31 years.
Meb Keflezighi’s family fled the Ethopian-Eritrean wars when he was 12. They settled in San Diego. His victory is as fitting as the Sox’s last fall: overcoming the adversity of fleeing his family’s home to graduate from one of the best public universities in the country, represent his adopted homeland in the Olympics, and win both the New York City and Boston Marathons. It represents an idealized version of the American immigrant story.
36,000 other runners ran with him, 9,000 more than competed last year. As I suspected, Boston and those who love our city’s signature sporting event were not about to let two deranged men steal from us what we hold dear. That ultimately is the goal of terrorism, is it not? To make people so afraid they stop living their lives, to disrupt and achieve by violent means what one has failed to achieve by political ones.
Personally, I don’t understand that. I don’t believe there is ever justification, no matter how great the political oppression one may be fighting, for killing another human being who has not willingly and consciously chosen to engage in combat, particularly not an 8-year old boy.
Once, during the year I spent in Northern Ireland, I got into a discussion of and then an argument over a bombing that took place in the town of Omagh, about an hour from Belfast, in August 1998. It was the single deadliest incident in the 30-year history of The Troubles, that almost Orwellian appellation for the campaign of terror the IRA waged for three decades before its political wing, Sinn Fein, signed the Easter Peace Accords.
29 people were killed in Omagh that August day 16 years ago, including a girl as young as 18 months. A woman I was originally trying to pick up at a pub some three or four months later explained to me the necessity, and extolled the virtue, of such action. I told her she should try explaining that to the mother of the young girl who was killed to see if she would agree. Needless to say, I did not ask the woman for her phone number.
I am not blithely unaware that people who live in privilege can claim to be innocent bystanders because they are not consciously choosing to engage in combat, even if they are benefiting from systems of oppression that would drive their victims to resort to violence out of a sense of anger, of helplessness, of hopelessness.
In my concluding post on the bombings last year, I argued that we all have a moral obligation to follow the long tail of this story and to try and wrestle from it answers to some very difficult questions. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sits in federal prison outside Boston awaiting trial. How did this young man become radicalized? Was he simply following his older brother’s lead, or did he share his brother’s extremist veiws?
In many ways, he presents a mirror opposite to Meb Keflezighi, the idealized version of the American immigrant story versus one that feeds every argument those who would close our borders use: a man, a family, who struggled to assimilate, socially, economically, educationally.
Sociological researchers like to tease out variables to isolate those that can be identified as causal. As refugees from war, Keflezighi and his family were cut off from their country of origin. The older Tsarnaev brother traveled back and forth to Dagestan, the part of the Russian Federation from which his family hailed. Is this discrepancy, alone, enough to account for the difference in the two men’s abilities to assimilate, the one forced to, the other able, as it were, to keep a foot in two homes, old and new? I don’t know.
Last year at this time, President Obama signaled his desire to ease tensions with our old Cold War foe by sending his National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon, to Moscow to deliver a letter to Vladimir Putin. Now we watch as Russia threatens Ukraine, and pundits criticize President Obama for not taking a hard enough line. They seem to forget that we watched a similar scenario unfold in 2008 in the independent Republic of Georgia and that factions within Dagestan, familial home of the Tsarnaevs, have agitated for their independence from the Russian Federation for years.
For all its flaws, and it does have them, the United States remains a beacon of hope for millions of people around the world. They will continue to seek entrance to our country because they believe it offers greater opportunity than that which is available to them at home. As they do, the strands of their personal narratives, and the sociopolitical narratives of the lands from which they emigrate, will become entwined, some closely, some tenuously.
International conflicts rarely offer easy solutions. After more than a decade of war, is the United States really in a position to provide military assistance to Ukraine should Russia invade? Can we, as a country, ensure our security, so that we don’t suffer tragedies like last year’s marathon bombings again, without waging war on Muslim countries in lieu of the non-state entities that are the true loci of terror? Or without barring those who would genuinely seek opportunity here?
These are odd questions to be asking on Marathon Monday, and I can’t even begin to claim I have any answers. Yesterday was a day to celebrate the resiliency of a city and the men and women who suffered so terribly in the wake of last year’s bombing. But the Boston Marathon has always been an international sporting event, no more so than this year.
Boston has remained strong in the face of terror and, for that, I am proud. But having confronted terror we can’t again shunt it off to some corner of the world we don’t know much about. We are implored as we travel the city’s subway system to remain vigilant. “If you see something, say something” That should be as true of the events unfolding beyond our borders as it is of an abandoned backpack.
Photo: AP/Matt Rourke