In the wake of the diabolical bombing of the Boston Marathon, a vile act of random mayhem and one of the most heinous crimes in this city’s long history, there is natural anxiety, fear and confusion. When a fellow human being, possibly a neighbor from Cambridge, is capable of such a thing, who are we? What is the future of Boston? Of the Marathon? Of daily life?
Will we live in fear with soldiers on our streets? Will we bond together with a new sense of pride and outrage? Will we attend public events in fewer numbers? Or in greater numbers?
The answer is both simple and challenging: The city and the Marathon will be whatever we, and not some mad bomber, decide they will be.
We are already doing the work of finding that meaning. We are grieving. We are raging. We are talking. We are holding vigils. This isn’t incidental. It’s the hard work.
In the end, we are going to get our city back. We are going to get our Marathon back, too. We will have the responsibility of defining them, just as we defined them before April 15.
The only permanent losses are the human ones. The dead, the maimed and those who love them will never be whole again. Survivors will persevere, cope, find new friends, new inner strengths and new joys. We can offer them help, support, sympathy, protection, justice. But the frustratingly terrible truth is we can never truly fix what has been senselessly broken.
Boston and the Marathon, on the other hand, are up to us. They are collective efforts. They are collaborative enterprises. They are ideas and ideals.
Very few people seem aware that both the Marathon and Patriots’ Day are fundamentally commemorations of violence and death. Marathons are inspired by the ancient Greek Battle of Marathon, where thousands of people were slaughtered; the modern race is specifically is based on the legend of an Athenian who ran a great distance to announce the battle had been won and then dropped dead. Patriots’ Day marks the beginning of the Revolutionary War, when American Colonists and the British (as well as loyalist Americans) decided they could only settle their differences by shooting each other and turning Boston into a war zone.
Yet war, death and mass killing have nothing to do with modern Marathon Monday. Indeed, the bombings were seen as a drastic contrast to these events, a perversion of them rather than a similar chapter in human violence. That is because we decided that race and that holiday mean something new.
Today, the British are our friends and Patriots’ Day is primarily considered a cheap excuse for a day off. There is an annual war re-enactment, but the violent reality is downplayed in favor of our freedom-loving national spirit. And the Marathon is the antithesis of nations at war. It is a time when we welcome people from all over the world to meet us and test their mettle on our open streets. It is a way for generous people in Jamaica Plain and all over the city to raise funds for worthy causes. It is an occasion where everyone is a winner for competing and thousands of us make the effort to cheer them on. The worst that can be said is that it’s a giant traffic headache.
We could have made these events focus on bloody war stories. We—Bostonians, Bay Staters, Americans—chose a different story, and thus a different future. We’re about to choose again.
The important thing is to have confidence in our ability to find that meaning and create that future. “Boston” and “the Marathon” are ideas. A maniacal criminal can question them for a day. We will define them for generations.