04/19/2013 11:37 am ET Updated Jun 19, 2013

Never Again a City of Strangers


If the Hub of the Universe has an axle, it must be the John Hancock tower, which seems to embrace the whole city in its mirrored surface. It's a sky-blue map pin marking Boston's presence on the horizon, even when you'd swear you were too far away to see any sign of our modest little city at the edge of the sea. For marathon runners, the Hancock is a beacon heralding the end of a few hours' willing hardship under a proverbially fickle April sky. This year, it also stood mute witness to the death of three innocent people, and to the first agonizing steps of hundreds of others now caught up in a race they never asked to run, one that will last the rest of their lives. They are all marathoners now, whether grieving, maimed, or traumatized, and we can only encourage them, run alongside them in solidarity, and offer such help as we can.

We often seem to treat endurance athletes and people in recovery with the same reverence and warmth, perhaps because both groups heroically embrace pain and heartbreak and by overcoming it, give us a feeling of control over the unbidden and unwelcome suffering that comes with being human. Athletic contests began as religious rituals to shed sweat and blood to redeem us in the eyes of indifferent gods, and although no longer overtly sacred acts, the theme of sacrifice remains at the core of our admiration for athletic prowess. The marathon above all other sporting events embodies this ritual act, played out in a literally pedestrian form by people who are not so different in body and spirit from the fans cheering them on. In no other sports contest is the line between spectator and competitor so intimate and permeable, democracy in miniature with all its attendant freedoms and, sadly, perils.

At its best, a city is a place that feels like home but welcomes strangers too. Yeah, Boston doesn't always manage to feel that way, but that only makes events like the marathon more precious. Our city actually has more of those ritual moments of unity than its size would merit. The marathon. Fourth of July on the Esplanade. Any given day at Fenway. A snowstorm that gives you a reason to commiserate and wonder at the power and beauty of it all while you help shovel out your neighbor's car. On these days, the anonymity of city life yields to a brief but earnest fellowship.

It's easy to forget that the experience of being anonymous is itself only a few centuries old. In John Hancock's day, Boston had a population of 15,000 people, about the same population that the little town of Ashland has today, which sits astride the marathon route at Mile 3. For most of its history, Boston was a truly a place where everyone knows your name. If you grew up in a small town like I did, you know that's a mixed blessing. Strangers there don't escape suspicion, but then, neither do you, neighbor, even if all you've done is let the lawn go to seed or forgotten to take your trash can in. It's a feeling of scrutiny and security that you surrender, often gladly, when you move to a big city, or even when leave your beloved city neighborhood for another. Events like the marathon let you recover that feeling of small-town inclusiveness, if only fleetingly, without the feeling of being watched or judged.

Perhaps that's why Monday's act seems so particularly vile -- because whoever planted those bombs was trading on their anonymity on a day where everyone was doing their best to deny the emotional distance generated by the very fact of a metropolis. Like a church, a public celebration is a sacred space, where evil must not enter, by common agreement. The rituals of the city are supposed to evoke a feeling of goodwill and communion. When that implicit contract is violated, we feel something sacred has been defiled.

And you get angry, naturally. You cry for vengeance. You change your profile picture. You wear a Red Sox T-shirt, you do all of these things, knowing they're impotent gestures, because you can't be idle. You can even call for a reinstatement of the death penalty, as one local newspaper pundit did on the front page a day after the bombing. If you like, your feelings of outrage can help you mine the past for satisfyingly muscular responses, for capricious acts of retribution, hangings, burnings at the stake, punitive wars against "them," whoever they might be. And then you are standing with the bombers, because you've bought into their lie that to satisfy your sense of justice you have to mete out pain in equal measure. Tread carefully. These are the very acts the original patriots abhorred in the tyranny of the old order and sought to sever us from.

I'm not going to dwell on whatever punishments we serve up to the bombers. I couldn't care what their motive was, what imagined grievance they held, and once they're locked away in some dark hole, we should all forget about them. A more lasting and impactful sentence has already been delivered. Whether the fiends who did it are ever caught, their sentence was passed in the moment after the blast when strangers came running towards the pall of smoke and carpet of twisted bodies instead of running away in fear. That unthinking affirmation of community and caring negated the killers' assertions more satisfyingly and conclusively than any show of justice the state will be able to mount over the coming months. Whatever goal the murderers were seeking to achieve, they failed to reach it, because we are still running in the right direction.