As a runner, former Boston resident and frequent marathon attendee, I observed the mayhem in New England this week with special horror. The pressure-cooker bombs, which may have been packed with nails and ball bearings, seem to have been timed to explode when a high concentration of runners would be finishing. Elite men had crossed the line two hours earlier, and the top women went through shortly thereafter. These bombs would get the more ordinary runners, those talented enough to qualify for the race but at no risk of gracing the cover of Runner's World. American superstars Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher, BFFs who'd been featured in last month's issue, were probably enjoying a post-race meal together when the bombs went off. Spectators bore the brunt of the violence.
The randomness, the cruelty, the cowardice -- it's all terribly depressing, and offhand comments on Facebook read like a prayer vigil crossed with a suicide note. "I'm very sad about the world," said Newtown resident Lisa Abrams, who had come to Boston to cheer on Team Newtown Strong. As everyone knows by now, marathon organizers had dedicated the last mile of the race to the 26 students and educators who were gunned down in December, and nine Newtown residents ran on Monday. No one from Newtown was hurt in this tragedy.
Whether the work of a lone loon or an organized faction, random violence in your backyard -- and for anyone who has raced or trained on that marathon course in Boston, up and over the heartbreak hills, ending on the Boylston Street straightaway, that course is our backyard -- such senseless bloodshed makes you feel vulnerable and exposed, and very much like that woman from Newtown who is shaking her fist at the world. For those of us living in the shadow of New York City, every fresh terrorist attack yanks the scab off the old wound of 9/11. In the New Jersey suburb where I live, memories from that otherworldly day are never far off; a low-flying plane can still spark panic.
The bombing in Boston feels much the same, an opportunity to reflect on one of literature's enduring themes, man's inhumanity to man. But perhaps there's another way to process these events. In that terrifying 2.5 minute video of the bomb exploding, where the old man in the orange shirt is thrown to his knees by the explosion's force, notice how few seconds it takes for first responders and ordinary citizens to take action. Yes, some are fleeing in the opposite direction, terrorized by the violence and desperate to find safety. But others lunge at the carnage, hauling away broken barricades and tending to the wounded. Police and fire officials, men and women in bright yellow race jackets, soldiers dressed in camouflage, photographers and ordinary citizens all descend on the scene and strip away what's between them and the victims. Within 90 seconds of the first explosion, a stampede of help overwhelms the scene.
On the weekend after 9/11, my husband and I tried to shield our very young children from the desperation we felt. A friend had died in the towers, others shared harrowing tales of escape, and a thick fog of grief seemed to settle over the community. In spite of the shared despair, individuals and groups organized food and clothing drives, set up volunteer brigades to help out downtown, and launched independent fund raising campaigns to help...somebody. Confused by all the whispering and upset adults, my three kids set up a stand outside our house and sold high-priced lemonade and Chips-Ahoy, all to aid 9/11 victims. Our neighbors, equally bereft, flocked to the table and threw twenties into the jar. Having unleashed a collective sense of horror, the tragedy now let loose a more powerful determination to reclaim humanity from the nihilists. "There are more good people than bad people," was the best I could do to explain the inexplicable.
Of course, we've seen the same reaction in Boston after the bombings. In addition to the crack emergency assistance provided at the scene, as well as the stunning expertise of doctors and nurses who rescued the gravely wounded, residents set up a Google docs map to offer housing for stranded runners. John Hancock donated $1 million to launch The One Fund Boston, a pot for bombing victims, and business heads from Bank of America, the Red Sox, the Boston Foundation and Bain Capital have jumped in. Organizers of the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, begun 13 years ago to commemorate the lives lost in that tragedy, have invited the thousands of Boston runners who were stopped before the finish line Monday -- about one-third of the entire field -- to run in Oklahoma, for free. Naturally, because runners tend to possess big hearts, some who had just finished the marathon sprinted on to hospitals to donate their blood. And Anonymous, that pesky hacking group, disabled the Facebook page of the Westboro Baptist Church, thwarting the inconceivable plot of those emotional terrorists to picket the funerals of bombing victims.
Good works were followed by more good work, this time by the police and various joint task forces, who finally proved able to share information for the greater good. Once identified, the Chechen brothers had no choice but to flee, and the ensuing car chases, manhunt and community lockdown ended like a very satisfying movie, with one bad guy dead and the other in custody. ("We should have had Boston get Bin Laden," a friend said Saturday morning.) It's as if all of America watched the same drama play out over the week: from tragedy to triumph in five days. We cried, we cheered, we won!
After the all-clear came out Friday night at about 8:30, my Boston-bred husband raced upstairs to secure a ticket to the Red Sox game that had been rescheduled when everything shut down. His wounded city beckoned, and this morning he drove up in time for the long pre-game ceremony that honored victims, police, and volunteers. Players wore special uniforms with Boston embossed on the front, and all the leading figures of the week came out for their curtain calls. Fans waved Boston Strong flags and furled inspiring banners, including one that declared "Thank You Heros," with the missing 'e' tucked in as an afterthought. Only the hardest of hearts didn't soften when organizers flashed photos from the week, including one of eight-year-old bombing victim Martin Richard. In it, the gap-toothed third-grader with a sweet smile holds a homemade sign that reads No More Hurting People. The photos remind us that this is life and death we're experiencing, not a filmmaker's rendering of it, and that the catharsis we feel can't we shared by all.
All together, this defiance in the face of sadism is like a giant middle finger thrust at the psychopaths who imagined that their garage bombs and egg timers would bring down a city, would keep Americans from gathering in crowds, and would send runners scurrying to their corners. As if. "I've decided I'm going to do it next year because of that," said five-time marathoner Jacob Edwards, whose grandfather John J. Kelley won the Boston Marathon in 1957. "The second it opens I'm going to see if I can get in."