Terror in Boston :: A View from the Street
Each year I volunteer as a massage therapist for the Boston Athletic Association. The Boston Marathon is a High Holy Day on the calendar of any athlete, and although it's been years since my knees let me run I am still an avid cyclist. I also work a fair amount with athletes in my regular massage practice, as well as volunteering at various events.
One of my favorite things about the Boston Marathon is the wide cross-section of people I meet every year. This year, the 117th Running of the Boston Marathon, was no different. At least, it started out that way. But then something happened. Something terrible. Something that can never be justified or adequately explained.
I had just finished a post-event massage for a runner from Minnesota when our team captain walked to the center of the room and announced that we had been asked to clear the building.
"Something's happened at the finish line," he said. "We don't know what. Please help your athletes off the table and calmly, quickly, gather up your tables and leave the building."
My first thought, given the recent spate of gun violence across the country, was that there was some sort of shooting incident. My athlete from Minnesota finished gathering his belongings; I wished him a safe journey home. I hoped for a safe journey home, myself.
Everyone in the room kept calm and did as they'd been asked. Within a few minutes, the room was nearly empty - athletes, volunteers, massage therapists, everyone streamed out, with no sense of panic. We knew something was up, and not knowing what it was made everyone apprehensive, but there were no screams or sobs.
On the street, it was a similar scene. I have worked as a volunteer massage therapist at the Boston Marathon for over a decade and a half, and this was the quietest and most orderly post-Marathon afternoon I have ever seen. Usually, the scene is considerably more raucous, if not a little drunken; everyone seemed stone sober now. The police were answering questions kindly and calmly; there was a wail of sirens on the streets, and an air of tension and sadness, but no sense of terror.
Walking up the street I caught snatches of conversation. "Two bombs..." "Things are just getting worse." A large part of the reason the street was so quiet, I realized, was that so many people were on their cell phones. (Later on, cell service was cut for fear that the bomber or bombers might be using cell phones to detonate IEDs remotely.) Many people were texting or finding news feeds on their phones. Others were having conversations with friends and relations: "I'm fine, Mom..." "It's crazy..."
My own phone was buzzing with text messages - friends, family, colleagues all checking in, wondering if I was safe. I started tapping out reassurances as I navigated the street, pulling my massage table along behind me. One text informed me (erroneously as it turned out) that the T had suspended service - later I learned this was just the Green Line, but thinking the Red Line was out of service I changed course and headed for Charles Street. My husband and I arranged via text for me to make my way by foot to Kendall Square, where he would pick me up.
Strangers approached me, some of them hobbling along, clearly athletes who had just finished the run. They asked directions - of course they did, they were from out of town. I did my best to direct them. I saw other Bostonians offering directions and advice. One young man wondered where he might meet with runners he was there to support, now that the area around the finish line was closed off.
Trundling my massage table across the Longfellow Bridge proved unwieldy and slow, given the narrow sidewalk and the people trying to get by from the other direction. A train rumbled by me, clearly carrying passengers. My information had been wrong, but in circumstances like these that was not surprising. I thought back to 9/11 and the rumors that were flying around that day. I remembered how my husband had been in Washington, D.C. on that day and I was terrified for his sake; I knew he must be feeling something similar, so I kept up a steady stream of texts to reassure him.
It certainly helped me to keep hearing from him and others, especially to hear from colleagues who worked in the area and who were responding to group text and email threads to check in and let it be known that they were okay.
More information trickled through my cell phone. Two bombs had gone off in quick succession, one right in front of Marathon Sports. Two people had been killed and more than sixty were injured - terrible injuries, with limbs blown off. The kind of thing you would have seen in Iraq or Afghanistan. Was this an attack by foreign elements? Or was this the work of domestic terrorists who had learned the wrong lessons from Al Quaeda and insurgents - lessons not in how to combat terror, but how to inflict it?
I worried that this attack was something home grown. Since the election of Barack Obama, our nation's first black president, home grown right-wing terror and hate groups have soared in number. White supremacists, conspiracy theorists fueled by talk radio, anti-"one world" thugs who have soaked up wild fears about globalization and come to the wrong conclusions about what it means... it only takes a few fear-crazed (or simply crazy) individuals with a working knowledge of IEDs to inflict terror on a city, or a nation.
The intel and the response from our political leaders indicates that this was indeed terrorism, whether of foreign or domestic provenance. A deep fury welled up in me - to see the 117th Running of the Boston Marathon, a quintessentially American and heroic tradition, attacked with bombs. To read reports of absolutely cruel, gruesome injuries inflicted on innocents in the name of who knows what sick, retrograde, tyrannical agenda. To know that Boston, a cradle of our American liberty, had been targeted by extremists of any stripe. To think of the possibility that the ones responsible might actually believe they are striking a blow for some brand of freedom defined only in delusional minds, psyches so damaged that this act of despicable violence seemed in any way justifiable to them.
If the goal of terrorism is to terrify, then the best defense against terrorism is to deny the perpetrators the satisfaction of making us afraid. Terrorism only works if we allow ourselves to be terrorized. There is absolutely no way in hell I am going to allow anyone to terrorize me. I'm furious, enraged, saddened; I think of the brave athletes I worked with this afternoon, people of spirit and fortitude who came from all over this nation and from around the world. People I felt honored to serve, people I felt proud to host in this, my city. One of them was a veteran who had served in our recent wars; I had thanked him for his service to our country. How disappointed he must be, I thought, to have fought far from home and endured so much only to come home and see this happen on a day marked out for athleticism and conviviality.
I texted my husband and let him know I was going to catch the Red Line at Kendall; I'd get home faster that way. I made sure the text sent before I headed down the stairs into the T station, where my cell phone would not get signal. I wanted my husband not to worry. I wanted to defeat terror at any and every turn.
On the subway, the atmosphere was similar to that in the street. No one said a word. There was a profound, and shared, sense of sobriety and sadness. What there was not was a sense of fear or intimidation. As we pulled into Central Square I had a glance around to see whether my massage table was blocking anybody's egress. I caught the eye of a man who looked like he might have come from India or Pakistan. He nodded and smiled to let me know I was blocking his way and I nudged my table aside for him. "Thank you," he said. As he exited the train, I wondered whether he would encounter the same sort of stupid, prejudicial accusations that people with dark skin - from the Middle East, from the Subcontinent - had experienced after 9/11.
I hoped not. I hoped that in the last decade-plus, we might have learned something. I hoped that our previous experiences with terrorism would have, if nothing else, spurred us to grow up a little bit and save our wrath for the guilty and not just the different.
When I arrived home, there was more news. Two more devices were found that thankfully didn't detonate. There were reports that an explosive device had apparently gone off at the JFK Library. That smelled even more to me like domestic terrorism - like something cooked up by crazies who blame "the liberals" or "the 1960s" or any and everything but themselves for their problems. Then, the reports changed; the detonation at the JFK Library might not have been due to a bomb at all, but somehow related to an electrical fire from earlier in the day.
The news about the two explosions near the finish line was not turning into any story involving accident or innocuous causes. Those detonations were bombs going off. Really bombs. The bombs had gone off right in the thick of the crowd of spectators lining the Marathon's route; the terrible injuries we were hearing about were not an unintended consequence. They were designed. The human suffering and the personal pain beyond measure that will be the result were deliberate. Every bit of suffering and fear caused by this act of unfathomable immorality and bestial viciousness was planned out in advance, with cold-blooded and calculating intention. What animals are responsible for this?
I wasn't going to be able to keep up with all the texts I was getting. My cell phone battery was dying. I went to Facebook instead, where I posted a message to let everyone know I was okay, I was fine, I was home. My husband was fussing over me. I was trying, at my editor's request, to get something written up about it.
On a friend's page, where she had posted about her shock and horror, I jotted a few thoughts. Whoever had done this, whatever their so-called reasons, this much is certain: They will be caught. They will be punished. They will answer for their crimes, their sins, their unpardonable acts of violence, and their cowardice.
Far from being terrorized, I'm too hopping mad to be scared. These gutless bastards are going to learn something about the Americans they only wish they had the good red blood to be: We don't back down. We're coming for you. And you will good and goddamn rue this day.