Personal: Boston, after the Boston Marathon bombing

I rarely write personal things in this blog, or in the magazine, or in the newspaper column (in The Guardian). The Guardian asked me to write something about what people in Boston are thinking in the immediate wake of the Boston Marathon bombing and the ensuing horrors. (The Guardian asked me to do this, I think, because I am their only columnist who lives in the Boston area — I live in Cambridge.)

Here are those thoughts, and also (below them) some context material that did not make it into the newspaper. I have written a slightly different headline here that the one that appears in the newspaper.

* * *

The Boston Marathon now becomes, for us, a symbol of who we are

Now we go about our business. We’ll find out, in bits, which of the details actually happened, and which were confused rumours. We’ll also begin to find out, we hope, how we are connected to the people who did this. They were part of the community, went to school with people we know, lived near people we know, shopped at the stores we shop at, probably walked past us on the street dozens of times.

There is one thing that, for sure, has changed. Now the Boston Marathon really is important. It’s become our symbol, to ourselves, of what and who we are, of how we react to the unexpected, of how we work together or not. Right now the overwhelming feeling is: damn, we do pull together when it really matters.

What about the marathon will change? By that I really mean what about us, the community, will change? How will precaution balance against the desire that we must not allow terrible things to happen? Make the marathon high-security, and part of what’s always made us would be gone. Will we let this terrible week break that? These are things we will argue about. Because we are Bostonians, and because we know that two people did not want us to continue being what we are.

Cambridge and Boston are the same place, and so is Watertown. A winding river and kink-tangled roads separate Cambridge from Boston, and divide one part of Watertown from another, but the divisions are for argument’s sake. We have many little neighbourhoods. We argue about how different the neighbourhoods are (hell, there’s a word, “Cambridgey”, meaning “will argue and complain all-too-knowingly till the end of time about any specific thing”). But we have been reminded that when push comes to shove, or to much worse, we are one place. And we are we, not a bunch of them-over-theres.

The bombing, the murder of the MIT policeman, the carjacking, the gun and grenade battle, the evacuation of The Street Where the Suspects Lived, the capture of Suspect Two, all of this happened within a three-mile half-circle around the street where I live. Texting, email, Twitter and Facebook kept us sewed together with family, friends, neighbours, colleagues. The news was, of course, confused, and three-quarters wrong as the frantic bits dribbled in.

On Thursday night, Twitter brought word of a “shooter” being on the loose at MIT, two miles from my home. We heard sirens. That night and the next day, life was happening on Twitter and email and text messages, and in the sounds from outside. Lots of sirens. Messages to friends in the parts of town where according to the Twitter snippets – dire, evil things were or maybe were happening. Relief, usually instant, when the friends messaged back. Friends in Watertown emailed us photographs of the heavily armed policemen outside their windows.

Friday was simultaneously ordinary and surreal. A strong request, not an order, from the governor to stay indoors, with an explanation of why we should. And we all did. The whole day the streets were empty. No people. Almost no cars. All day. Through the window came only birdsong, interrupted now and again by bursts of multiple sirens. Very un-Boston.

* * *

Here is the extra material that did not make it into the Guardian:

* * *

Some background, about the marathon and Boston:

The Boston marathon, for most of us, was never important (except to the runners), certainly not in a life and death way. But it has always mattered. Boston is about one tenth the size (any way you want to measure it) of New York City. Boston was, early on, the country’s most important and dominant city. We still laughingly and laughably feel (if not think) that New York is our great rival. The marathon — the BOSTON marathon, is Boston’s only event that, year after year after decade after decade, got noticed by the rest of the world. It’s the eccentric family member who persistently (since 1897!) kept at its odd little obsessive activity, never harmed anyone and, late in adulthood, became a minor quasi-celebrity who inspired the creation, around the world, of flashier, richer rivals.

We have little experience with bombs going off in our city. Here’s what feels different about our situation, as compared with that of other places, places that have had to deal with this more often.

One of the few things that felt clear about this bombing: It happened right at the spot where the attention — the city’s, the area’s, the world’s attention — would be and was intensely focused.

It happened at the finish line of our one, our only long-lived, hey-world-this-is-us civic minor pride and joy.

It happened at a time when there would be and were — predictably, reliably — normal, American, Massachusettsian, Bostonian everybodies who brought themselves there BECAUSE they all wanted to to be there together. On marathon day everyone, native or immigrant or foreign student or visitor-for-a-day, feels and is treated as a Bostonian.

Whatever the bombers thought they were attacking, that’s what it felt — to me, anyway — that they were attacking. They attacked us. They attacked our us-ness.