All that can be said about a city and its people has been said. So I broach this subject with some hesitation. Nonetheless I feel obligated to recount my experience, if only to defend the sense of hope that's materialized in my hometown, and to deny all the cynicism that seems rampant.
I work in Davis Square, Somerville, about 4.5 miles from where the marathon bombings occurred. Monday was, by all means, a normal day (yes, all the clichés of disaster reporting apply). In retrospect, the only thing that alarms me is the radiant blue of the April sky that afternoon -- a feature I also noted to myself as a 14-year-old watching the World Trade Center collapse. And here it was, again, that cruel, very blue ironic sky.
At roughly 3:00 p.m., I overheard a coworker mumble something about an explosion at the finish line of the Boston Marathon -- reports of lost limbs, many dead, the possibility of additional bombs (if they were in fact bombs). The first image I saw was the one quickly plastered across the web: blood everywhere, smoke, body parts, people running, the razing of a city's proudest celebration.
It was confusion, everywhere, and not merely because of how much was unknown, but because of how unusual it was. This is what a lot of the critics of Friday's city-wide lockdown fail to grasp: Media coverage and police mobilization are not determined by body counts. This was a bigger story, a bigger deal than routine gun violence -- or even mass shootings. This was abnormal, shocking, confusing, and evil. It was threatening.
As I watched the coverage from the break-room of my office all I could think about were the friends and family I knew were running in the marathon. So I got on the phone. Most people responded quickly, but networks soon clogged as hundred of thousands of people throughout the city attempted the same thing.
At about 3:15, my company's multimedia producer got the call from our parent company to head down to the scene and capture footage (mind you, at this point it was not clear if the attack was over). I volunteered to help him, and before I knew it I was on my way to ground zero with two coworkers and a camera rig in tow. We managed to convince our cab driver to get as close to Boylston Street as possible, but we could only get as far as the MIT bridge in Cambridge -- very close to the location of Thursday night's initial shooting that killed MIT police officer Sean Collier.
Looking across the bridge to the city of Boston was surreal: Helicopters sliced across the perfect blue sky, SWAT patrol boats surveyed the bridge searching for bombs, and hundreds of people flooded in the direction of Cambridge. From there, the three of us walked with camera gear in hand all the way to ground zero (about 1.5 miles). Crossing the bridge, it seemed we were the only people heading toward the city. Eerily, the closer we got to the scene the more hectic things seemed to be: more SWAT vehicles, more sirens, more roadblocks, more police, more shouting, more media. By the time we reached Boylston a large perimeter had been established, such that it was impossible to see the finish line where the bombings occurred. We trudged through the Prudential Center Mall and finally arrived at the corner of Huntington and Belvedere, at the foot of the 52-story Prudential Tower. We set up our rig and began filming and photographing the police presence. It'd be redundant to explain exactly what we saw, as these images have been hard to avoid in recent days. Suffice it to say there were plenty of military-style assault rifles, SWAT tanks, ATF agents, and Coast Guard helicopters.
The first interview we managed to snag was with an off-duty firefighter who had been at the finish line during the explosion. His shirt was covered in blood, and with a look in his eye that seemed to fuse both shock and rage he recounted how people on scene had been frantically rounding up belts, tablecloths, and shirts from Marathon Sports to use as tourniquets for the many individuals who had lost limbs. "Children," he said, "with lost limbs. Awful."
"Were there any immediate fatalities?" we asked.
He paused, seemingly unsure if he should be talking to the media. "Yes," he answered, eyes elsewhere. "Definitely."
Later, on my 3.2 mile walk home to Inman Square I passed within sight of the Tsarnaev's Cambridge apartment. Here, in my neighborhood, in the Tsarnaev's neighborhood, nothing seemed unusual.
* * *
The next few days were strange. It was hard to believe that a city could return to normal, as if nothing had happened. T service resumed, commuters returned to work, conversations tempered. But if you talked to anyone you'd soon realize that no one was quite the same, because nothing was the same. People were scared, saddened, shocked, angry -- really angry. But they held it just beneath the surface, like the love one wishes to profess to a crush, restraining every impulse to explode with feeling. A mere aside would spark a torrent of emotions, whether it was with your best friend or your hairdresser: "How could anybody do such a thing? How could you attack such a happy event as the Boston marathon? We'll find these bastards!"
But it was unrequited angst. Evidence was sparse and news was slow. The days crawled as everyone tried to pose for normality in the interest of abiding that slender ideal: Don't let the whims of a terrorist bring a society to its knees. Don't prostrate before fear. And as a tough city with its share of both pride and shame, we didn't.
When the images of the Tsarnaev brothers were released on Thursday night, you could feel the sweat, anger, and anxiety of the city begin to swell. It was as if all the emotional healing of the previous few days had been upended in favor of directed rage. The police said, "Here are the fuckers. We need your help finding them!" And so began the Internet sleuthing, the Facebook reposts, the revitalized sense of justice, the real investigation.
Just as I was going to bed Thursday night my roommate shouted across the apartment that some shots had been fired at MIT. This was strange, I thought. MIT is an extremely safe neighborhood, but it's pretty far from where the bombings took place. Optimism is an odd sentiment to have when shots are being fired in your neighborhood, but that's what I felt as I hit the sack -- optimism that whatever was happening at MIT was not some horrible contagion of the same evil that had gripped the city three days earlier, but a relapse of it. Because a relapse is a lot easier to contain than a plague.
I fell asleep to the sound of sirens -- the kind that reaches your eardrum in a cacophony of indistinguishable shrills.
* * *
I woke to three separate phone calls from friends and family. First: Dad. Second: Brother. Third: My friend Paul. The first two calls I drowned out in a daze of sleepiness, as when they arrived I still didn't have to get up for another 45 minutes or so. The fourth, being from a friend, alarmed me.
"Yo, dude, shit's going down."
"Are you following the news?"
"No, you just woke me up."
"They found the bombers. One of them was killed last night, the other is on the lamb. The city is on lockdown -- you're not going to work."
I quickly snapped on my bedside clock radio, which is set to the local NPR station. These are the first words I heard:
"Following an early morning shootout with the suspects of the Boston Marathon bombings, the cities of Watertown, Cambridge, Allston, and Brighton are currently on lockdown. Public transit has been halted, and residents of these cities are being urged to remain inside their homes and not answer the door except for clearly uniformed police officers."
Words I've never heard before. Next, a text from my editor: "In case you haven't checked email, office closed today. Stay safe."
I looked out the window and noticed something I've never seen in the three years I've lived in this city: emptiness and silence.
The rest of the day was spent in an obsessive urge to follow every lead and beat in real time. I scoured police scanners, refreshed Google News every few seconds, commented on threads, perused Facebook, and scanned Reddit. I'm not much of a Twitter nut, but I tweeted something like 140 times over the course of the day, mostly reporting.
This aspect of citizen journalism was heavily derided on Friday, as police were concerned about Redditors and bloggers disclosing critical details through media that might be available to Dzhokar. I'm critical of this assertion, though. The argument that this style of reporting somehow assisted the investigation is ridiculous, but if you knew who to follow it was a faster source of news and often more reliable than the traditional outlets -- cable news in particular. Furthermore, it was the Internet's enthusiasm for justice that the police were banking on when they released photos of the suspects on Thursday. And it paid off. It only took a few hours before additional photos of the suspects began swamping Facebook feeds. While some of the sleuthing -- particularly what occurred on Reddit -- was accusatory, unfounded, and even judgmental, all of this was a symptom of a fervent desire for justice. And that's what I clung to in my eternal optimism last week -- this idea that apathy had been alienated in favor of hope, determination, and focused, healthy anger. This was even more touching as a local, to see this outpouring of support from all over the world.
By the time Dzhokar was captured the shelter-in-place warning had been lifted. Nonetheless, most people in the city remained hunkered down in hopes of a satisfactory conclusion to this long, strange day. But it seemed elusive. It wasn't fear that kept us inside; in fact, many people (including myself) had left for bars, coffee shops, and liquor stores that had reopened. What kept us indoors was perhaps ineffable, but it could be felt as I watched on TV the endless stream of police cars, tanks, and other law enforcement vehicles exit the scene of the arrest in Watertown. All that glee, euphoria, relief, and appreciation. All that hope.
Here, one might point out the hypocrisy in harping on the events in Boston when similar acts of violence occur on a frequent basis in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Once again, though, I think this position builds itself on the false notion that body counts determine news worthiness. From day one to day five, the Boston tragedy mobilized citizens, journalists, and police partly because of how unusual it was, but mostly because of what it threatened: stability -- a condition that is far gone in the above mentioned nations. What happened in Boston was the first act of terrorism on U.S. soil since 9/11, and everyone knew it, even if they couldn't describe it. This was different. It threatened to hurl the U.S. back into a state of warmongering, liberty-stripping chaos reminiscent of 2002 and 2003. But with Dzhokar's capture Friday night, that idea was destroyed. The intensity of the manhunt, which has been heavily criticized, was indicative of a resistance--a resistance of the majority, if you will. It said, "This WILL NOT be tolerated, and we will halt the universe in its tracks to bring the perpetrators to justice. Economics, tax dollars, inflammatory definitions of freedom--that can wait. What matters now is stopping these evil fucks."
And that's what the people of Boston showed on Friday. They were not cowering in their homes, fearful of what's outside, unwilling to confront reality. I know Boston. I've lived in the area my entire life -- we are not a fearful people. What happened on Friday was an expression of a culture's respect for justice and the show of force that is sometimes needed to find it.
Through all I've read and heard over the past week, it's still Patton Oswalt's Facebook missive on the day of the bombings that most sticks with me. Oswalt referred to the idea that good people outnumber evil people, and that they always will. Very true. But I think there's something more to this idea, and it has to do with hope, which I guess might be considered the vessel of good. What I witnessed last week was an expression of unrelenting hope and optimism by good people. This was expressed in their willingness to cooperate with the authorities, in their desire to bring the perpetrators to justice, in their volunteered efforts to assist the police, and in their willingness to run toward ground zero in search of those who needed help. This, I believe, is the act of good, of benevolence, overwhelming a sharp point of evil, suffocating it through sheer mass and numbers. This has an effect, I believe, and it's a tangible, if unscientific idea. It manifests itself through the unfolding of events, and while this irrepressible good can never stomp out evil, it most certainly stifles its ambitions.