Big Brother Boston?

Flickr/Nick Stenning

When I was growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, my family would always watch the Boston Marathon from the same spot. It was only a few blocks from my house to the intersection of Centre Street and Commonwealth Avenue, six miles from the finish line at Copley Square.

I hesitate to call it a sacred experience, but there was unquestionably a kind of reverence in witnessing the marathon. None of us could understand how human beings could run that far that fast, much less conquer those agonizing hills in even the most advanced wheelchair. No amount of repetition could reduce the sense of awe. Race after race, the spectators marveled and shouted their encouragement. The children would strain their arms holding out paper cones of cool water, hoping a top runner would grab it on the way to breaking the tape.

Everyone saved their loudest cheers for the Hoyts. Each year, Dick Hoyt—close-cropped hair, eyes shielded by silver sunglasses, sweat rushing everywhere—pushed his chair-bound quadriplegic son Rick the full distance of the marathon, and in pretty good time. The exuberance of the crowd seemed to have no effect on them, so complete was their determination to go those last few miles. Sometimes we didn't get to our spot early enough to see the elite competitors, but we never missed the Hoyts

Our intersection came just before Heartbreak Hill, a moderate incline that, after 20 miles of running or wheeling, tests the will of even the best-conditioned athletes. It was not unusual for a runner to slow down there, rest her hands on her hips, and jerkily walk off a cramp. Down the road, you might see another runner drag himself to the curb, sit, and draw huge breaths of air, never enough to fill his depleted lungs.

This year, a different kind of heartbreak overwhelmed the marathon. Two explosions near the finish line injured more than 100 people and killed three, one of whom was only eight years old. The sidewalk where the bombs went off was covered in a macabre confetti of garbage, glass shards, and blood.

Amid the debris was a tattered American flag. The marathon is run every year on Patriots’ Day, a state holiday commemorating the first battles of the Revolutionary War, in the towns of Lexington and Concord. As we recover from this horrible incident, I fear the kind of patriotism that will emerge.

It wasn’t long after the attack before the New York Post was reporting, rather incredibly, on a young Saudi suspect under guard at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Other papers took up the story, with a little more caution, and Twitter users joined in. Eventually Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis intervened, making clear that as of Monday there was no suspect at Brigham and Women’s or anywhere else. At the same press conference, Richard DesLauriers, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston division, announced that the bombing was being investigated as a crime, though it might become a terrorism case.

That the media’s attention immediately turned to the Post’s story shows just how easy it is to blame a Middle Easterner. But I can’t help worrying about what would happen if that story, or a similar one, turns out to be true. Boston today is justly famous for its progressive politics, but its openness to human diversity is exaggerated. The city is not immune to the sort of patriotism that is merely a pretext for closed-mindedness.

Will we now become the sort of oppressive community that hounds the undesirably bearded or headscarved in the false hope of recovering a cherished sense of security? Boston is not going to be the next Murfreesboro, the Tennessee city where extremists used law and fire to prevent (unsuccessfully) the construction of a mosque. But if we’re not careful, we could drift in that direction.

The most immediate concern is an uptick in patrolling and surveillance. If a visit to Fenway Park or Symphony Hall becomes an excuse for pat-downs, then we will have gone too far. But we can expect increased militarization of police at our community events. Thanks in no small part to generous federal grants to fight the wars on drugs and terrorism, today’s big-city police are more intimidating than ever, armed with heavy weapons and tactical vehicles that once were the province of the military. This arsenal is already prevalent in the public spaces of New York City. Now that Boston has suffered its own attack, it is reasonable to worry that it will soon be deployed here.

In spite of yesterday’s horrors, I am fairly sure there will be a marathon next year. The marathon is more than a road race. Every April, it wins the attention of a city so saturated with sports you’d think it could contain no more. Its arrival confirms that the beast winter has been slain, and it is at last time to hang up the longjohns. And it provides a rare chance for Americans to support athletes from the world’s most marginalized places; we are wild for Ethiopians and Kenyans here, at least when they’re outrunning the pack.

But next year’s marathon will be different from those of my youth. Maybe spectators will have to register and watch from pens. Maybe the finish line will be closed to the public. We’ll know soon enough. And we’ll know if Boston is the kind of place that heals itself or instead aggravates its wounds.

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