Several years ago, sitting in my then-office in Harvard Square early on a Monday morning, I heard the unmistakable sound of a galloping horse, followed an urgent yell: To arms, to arms, the British are coming! To arms! I poked my head out of the second-story window just in time to see a man in breeches and a tricorn hat fly down Mass Ave, his coattails flapping behind him. It was Patriots’ Day, and “William Dawes” was carrying to Lexington the news of the British regulars’ advance. (Only Samuel Prescott, the least remembered of the three riders that day, actually made it to Concord.) There, the other re-enactors would skirmish beside a village green and a narrow wooden bridge, to commemorate the beginning of the American revolution and the first time colonial farmers organized to spill the blood of their former countrymen.
More blood was spilled yesterday in Boston, but of a very different kind. We don’t know, yet, who planned the Boston Marathon bombings, and so we don’t know why they chose Boston or why they chose Patriots’ Day. Maybe they don’t like our world-class hospitals. Or maybe they hate our 50+ colleges and universities. Maybe it’s our vigorous tech sector that’s gotten their panties in a bunch. Or our ample parkland, our higher-than-average rates of income and education, or our lower-than-average rates of unemployment and obesity. Or maybe they just hate marathons (all those overachieving, obnoxiously fit, irritatingly determined, disgustingly healthy people and the unforgivably supportive people cheering them on) or Patriots’ Day (three cheers for colonial tyranny!).
Please excuse my snark. I think it’s a natural defense mechanism against random violence (apparently — I thankfully don’t have a lot of experience with my city being bombed). But pissed off sarcasm aside, in all earnestness, this city is great. Yes, our subway shuts down too soon. And no, the baked beans really aren’t any good. There was the busing issue, the Great Molasses Flood (indeed, that was a real thing), and for a long time, a lot of really bad sports teams. Our neighborhoods are too segregated and our egos are too large (“The Hub” is short for “The Hub of the Universe” after all). But I’d argue that our egos are big in proportion to our accomplishments. A quick list of greatest hits would have to include: starting the aforementioned Revolution, building America’s first public library, becoming the epicenter of the abolitionist movement, bringing the Industrial Revolution to this country, and (skip ahead a few years) passing universal health care and recognizing the legality of same-sex marriage. For the completists, we could throw in the first medical use of ether and being America’s safest city for pedestrians. You’re welcome.
And yet someone decided to turn the proudest day in Massachusetts, Patriots’ Day and Marathon Monday, into a day of death and dismemberment. As we grapple with this, we want something to do. Some way to get back to normal.
There can be no doubt: in the national spotlight, Boston is once again that City on a Hill, with the eyes of the world upon us. As we have been a leader in so many things, I know we can be a leader in our grief and in our compassion, too. We can rise to this horrifying occasion. As so many stories of heroism and empathy attest, we already have. Even if it’s just going in to work and calmly going about your business, make no mistake, you are one of the helpers. Just as Patriots’ Day eventually became, not a solemn remembrance of the horror of war, but a celebration of democracy, we can turn a grisly day back into a joyful one. It will take time, diligence, and, at times, sheer force of will, but we can do it. It will be its own sort of marathon, one we didn’t sign up for, but we’ll run it anyway.
Today, lacing up my sneakers and feeling like it was the least act of solidarity I could perform, I felt a steely satisfaction seeing the hordes of other runners out today. Many were wearing the brightly colored Boston Athletic Association shirts from races past. Singly or in groups, sneakers rhythmically pounding the banks of the Charles, we nodded at each other as we passed. We jogged by rowing crews on that river, preparing for Boston’s next big international athletic event, the Head of the Charles in October. We jogged by people walking dogs, trees with still-bare branches, a few optimistic forsythia, and flags at half-staff. We ran because it’s what keeps us sane. It’s what we do. It’s who we are.
I know there’s a world of difference between this attack and the deadlier bombings that happen in other cities around the world all too often, and that there’s no comparison between the Boston Marathon bombings and 9/11. But jogging along the Charles today, I couldn’t help but think back to the defiant bumper sticker I saw so often after that terrible day: a picture of the American flag, with its red, white, and blue, and the words THESE COLORS DON’T RUN. I take it as a mark of pride that here in Boston, we still do. And we always will.