Response to explosions brings out Boston’s best

Brutal violation of city’s big day won’t break it


BOSTON — Boston is an old city which this year has taken on a youthful bounce.

Fifty-six inches of winter have given way to blossoming magnolias.

Politics, the city’s second sport, is abuzz with young mayoral candidates; even locals who revere 20-year Mayor Tom Menino — and there are many — accept his retirement and thirst now for fresh approaches.

Early Monday afternoon, at 2:08 p.m., the new edition Red Sox won a walkoff victory to go 8-4 and lead their division. At Fenway Park, shirttails went flying as the players piled together in celebration.

Forty-eight minutes later, just a few blocks down the street — two stops on the Green Line — shirttails were being ripped off for use as tourniquets.

The marathon bombing struck Boston hard, for many reasons.

Patriots’ Day is a holiday in Massachusetts (and Maine), commemorating the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Every year it spreads a sense of holiday and exuberance around Boston, and the marathon always adds to it enormously as thousands of runners traverse the western suburbs to Boylston Street.

All who finish are victors, and their triumph is infectious.

For many more thousands of spectators who live in Boston and others who travel great distances to cheer them on, the runners’ exhaustion is somehow invigorating; their pain joyful.

It is hard to imagine an activity more personal — more intensely individual — than a marathon.

The novelist did not invent the “loneliness” of the long-distance runner. Yet in Boston the marathon is also a community event. Nearly every school and business and neighborhood rallies to support its runners. And many runners collect untold millions from groups of people who chip in a dime or a dollar a mile for favored charities.

Boston has a reputation for four-season frostiness, but countless visiting marathoners have marveled at the warm reception given them by total strangers here. Patriots’ Day is a time of togetherness, of gathering.

That this atmosphere could be violated so brutally, so quickly, is one of the most painful realities of the marathon bombing.

Perhaps this was the perverse purpose in the twisted mind that packed metal balls and nails into pressure cookers designed to maim those it did not kill.

Perhaps he (or she or they) feels America has strayed from the path begun at Lexington and Concord, and isn’t patriotic enough, for some lunatic reason.

Perhaps he doesn’t like taxes. Monday was tax filing day, and Massachusetts was for many years known as Taxachusetts, though that label has been false for decades. Just this month, a new study by CommonWealth Magazine finds that Massachusetts residents pay an “exceedingly average” tax bill — 26th among the states, in fact.

Perhaps the motive was more global, or, conceivably, more personal, and had nothing to do with the calendar or the occasion except that a crowd was on hand. Among the many ironies: this senseless act occurred directly across the street from one of the planet’s great repositories of reason, the Boston Public Library.

But one of the most painful aspects of the day is that so many young people were hurt. Nearly 200 victims are horrific in any event, but the news struck especially hard when it turned out that all three of those killed — an 8-year-old boy, a young woman of 29, and a Boston University graduate student — were, by initial accounts, vibrant young people with exciting lives ahead of them.

Boston is a city with a split personality. At times it can be a world-class city, if a bit on the smallish side. At other times it seems like an overgrown town. Both were in evidence on Monday, a twin response to the assault.

Literally seconds after the explosions, doctors and nurses who had been treating blisters and dehydration were frantically stabilizing patients who had had a leg blown off. The efforts were genuinely heroic. If there was any doubt of Boston’s standing in the medical world, there is none today.

Soon after, the city was showing its best neighborhood side, along with a bit of tech savvy. When word got out that some runners and other visitors might be shut out of locked-down hotels, locals established a site online for people to offer their homes. A hundred responded in the first three minutes; a thousand in the next half-hour.

And there was no pettiness. Officials lined up behind Gov. Deval Patrick, and there was little second-guessing about marathon security.

Mr. Patrick represented the atmosphere well. Like others who had been at the scene, he reacted swiftly and calmly. He refused to get caught up in premature speculation about the bomber’s identity or motive, but instead focused on evidence-gathering, safety, and praise for the generous efforts of so many people.

Boston’s last great trauma came 40 years ago, when a federal court judge required the city to bus thousands of schoolchildren to distant and unwelcoming neighborhoods to break racial segregation.

On the eve of busing, the late Kevin White, mayor at the time, became almost poetic. He said that a city, while inanimate, has a spirit, and a city’s spirit can take many years to build, but it can be destroyed by the acts of a day.

As it happened, busing and its opponents did not destroy Boston’s spirit, but they did create divisions and bitterness that rippled out for years.

From what has been seen in the last day and a half, the trauma of the marathon bombing is not likely to have anything like the same long-term effect.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Robert L. Turner is a former writer and editor with the Boston Globe.