We've heard many inspiring and heartwarming stories from Boston about how people acted in the aftermath of Tuesday's bombing—rushing to aid the injured, opening up their homes to strangers, being kinder and more considerate than they would have been a week ago, in ways small and large. Many people elsewhere have expressed solidarity with the city of Boston, and I think that's great. But amidst it all there are some strange expressions about how all that admirable response is somehow uniquely Bostonian. I'm not trying to condemn anyone, but it's something we always seem to fall into when there's a shocking and tragic event like this one. It certainly happened after September 11, when stories of heroism and generosity were so often followed with the sentiment that "Nowhere else in the world" would people have acted in such praiseworthy ways, as though had a similar tragedy happened in Tokyo or Copenhagen or Johannesburg, people would have just left each other to die on the sidewalk. I'm not the only one who thinks this way; at Slate, Luke O'Neill is a little discomfited by the way people are talking about his city:
This line of thinking cropped up more and more frequently as the night wore on. This is Boston! Now we're about to show you what we're made of. What does that mean? Are we sending a team of our most drunken, sports-crazed townies over to—where exactly?—to find the people responsible? Are we going to settle this terrorist attack with a fistfight outside The Fours? “Clearly ... someone forgot what happened the last time evil showed its face in Boston” read another meme friends have been posting over an image of two icons of Boston cinema's trademark roguish Irish outlaws. I can't decide if that's more or less infantile to think the fictional characters from The Boondock Saints are going to materialize to fight terror than to post pictures of Charlie Brown and Snoopy offering Boston a hug. Elsewhere, Today trotted out "Boston" prop Mike Barnicle to explain how owah tragedies ahh moar powerful than yowahs. "This was as if someone came into your living room and attacked you in your home," the longtime Boston newsman said. "That's the feeling, that's the sense of the crowd. This was an attack on family."
Some of the support from outside the city was even worse. One particularly parasitic example came from page-view profiteers BuzzFeed, whose list of 29 Reasons to Love Boston (subhead: "Wicked awesome"; sample entry: the Citgo sign) explained to the world that we're a city that has things to do and look at. Thanks for the reminder. One of those things we're known for here is Dunkin' Donuts, which, somehow, inexplicably, showed up in numerous expressions of defiant pride. What does a fast-food and coffee chain have to do with how Boston specifically reacts to a terrorist attack? It's like people were just listing off things that they associate with Boston in order to … well, I don't really know what the motivation behind that is. I'm not sure what the missing steps are between watching videos of people rush to the aid of bombing victims and pledging your allegiance to a specific brand of iced coffee.
It isn't that cities don't have particular personalities, born of history, the particular mix of people who live there, the industries that dominate, the way geography and weather shape the lives people live, and so on. Of course they do. For instance, I used to live in Philadelphia, which takes pride in a certain boorishness (Did we boo Santa Claus and throw snowballs at him at an Eagles game? Yeah, well, he had it coming). I also grew up in New Jersey, whose motto, I've long maintained, should be, "New Jersey: Fuck me? No, fuck you." Washington, where the Prospect is based, certainly has some things to commend it, but it has far less of a distinctive municipal personality than many other cities do. But the point is, the things that distinguish different cities have virtually no impact on how their citizens will react to an event like this bombing.
What does? Our humanity, that's what. It turns out that confronted with a shocking, dramatic, tragic event like this, people instantaneously find what's best in themselves. They become braver than they might have thought they'd be. They extend a hand to each other. They come together. That's what people do.
By all means, we should shower praise on the people of Boston for how they've reacted; they deserve it. And we should hear from them about how this event has affected their city. But it would be wrong to convince ourselves, in our understandable eagerness to laud them, that the good things they've done wouldn't have been seen elsewhere, too.