(Update: I just learned that the sister of one of our dining hall workers here at Harvard College was among the victims. My heart goes out to her devastated family.)
The Shot heard ’round the world. The cry, too. My deepest sympathies to those poor souls and their familis who lost ‘life and limb’ yesterday in Boston.
A lot of people outside Massachusetts don’t realize that yesterday was “Patriots Day,” a state holiday celebrating the battles of Lexington and Concord that marked the beginning of the Revolutionary War. For many of us, however, Patriots Day is simply the yearly excuse to enjoy Marathon Monday. It’s impossible to overstate – and I won’t try – the significance of the Boston Marathon to a certain (large) segment of the state’s population. It seems to represent, as much as a centuries-old battle ever could, the brawny, tough-minded, workaday spirit of New Englanders. The kind of New Englanders who run marathons. I love that you have to actually qualify to run in the Boston Marathon. “Don’t waste my time, you friggin’ losah!” seems to be the prevailing attitude about other, less discriminating marathons. Yet there are plenty of Boston marathon loopholes for good-deeders who lag in time but not generosity. You can sign up as a charity team. For the Children’s Hospital, for example, where yesterday’s youngest murder victims were transported.
Quite honestly, and I don’t mean to veer off topic here, it’s always greatly irritated me how people from other parts of the country, especially during election years, look down on New Englanders, and especially the Massachusetts genus, as not fully realized flesh-and-blood Americans. We’re too weird, too aggressive, too liberal blah blah. We swear too much and go to church too little. (I could toss around our lower divorce rates and our top-rated public school system which, if we were a nation, would put us ahead of all those educational powerhouses we wring our hands about.)
But let’s not get into a pissing match, shall we? The point is I’ve always thought New Englanders were the real deal, as real as anyone else. Surely our history counts for something. Surely it marks our cultural DNA in some way. I felt that way on September 11th, when I found myself (like many others) inexplicably drawn to the Old North Bridge for a moment of reflection. Maine, the only other state that celebrates Patriots Day, has sent more soldiers to their deaths from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on a per capita basis, than the other forty-nine.
Growing up in Concord MA, my family always attended the Patriots Day parade, not the marathon. There was a geographic divide, and if you were from one of the western suburbs out Route 2, you did the tricorn hat shtick and watched the marathon later in the day, on TV. I was 12 during the American bicentennial celebration when President Gerald Ford came to Concord; the street was mobbed and I didn’t catch even a brief glimpse of his measly motorcade. At one point, the crowd pressed down so hard on me and my friend that we were backed into a low stone wall at the edge of an old cemetery – the old settlers’ burial ground with the rubbed out, lichen-strewn head stone marking the deaths, on the same date, of “Mother and Child.” No names, just the haunting reminder of early American maternal and child mortality.
The only thing I recall with any distinctness about that Patriots Day was seeing an agitated old lady fall backwards off her perch on the wall. (Only her pride seemed injured.) Later, we claimed that she had “soiled” her underpants and we screamed with revulsion as we regaled our friends. I don’t even know anymore if such a person existed.
I raised my three kids in Concord, too, and I remember when they were little and we were still trying to impart life’s lessons with a prayer of something actually sticking, my heretofore un-enterprising children seized an opportunity to make an easy buck and set up a lemonade stand on our sidewalk, which by happy coincidence was the Old Battle Road on which the (retreating) British soldiers and (advancing) Minute Men had passed 200-plus years prior. There’s a spot not far from our old house called the “Bloody angle” where the fighting was especially intense. And another nearby place where unknown British army ‘regulars’ are buried about whom a poet wrote movingly:
They came three thousand miles, and died,
To keep the Past upon its throne:
Unheard, beyond the ocean tide,
Their English mother made her moan.
I’ve always felt so sorry for those young men who’d left everything familiar behind and surely had no real apprehension of what they were doing, or why. I had a similar feeling years ago – decades ago – when I wandered alone in a monsoon rain through a British World War II cemetery in Comilla, Bangladesh. There were rows and rows of graves of young men. 19, 20, 21 years-old. Boys whose English mothers moaned. The age of my own boys. Sappers. It took me years to hear that word again and learn what their deadly job required.
And yesterday: more bombs, closer to home. I’m fighting this urge to put everything in perspective. 26 people were murdered in Chicago last week. Where’s the outcry? Where are the tears? 3,500 people in America have been shot to death by guns since the Newtown travesty. And dare I state another uncomfortable truth? Where’s the outcry for those children just killed by drone strikes? When the hell did drones become the new normal? And just today: a non-partisan report from the Constitution Project, confirming our historically unprecedented use of torture in the U.S., and specifically the
“…considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody (that)…damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive.”
Every murder is a travesty. But it is a fact that some murders are more symbolically painful than others. Yesterday, in Boston, we felt that terrible, terrible pain.
But I hope that our collective (and individual) sorrow won’t turn us into the wrong kind of people, the wrong kind of Americans. I hope it won’t make us respond in ugly, reactionary, counter-productive ways. I hope it won’t turn our fear against us. And most of all, I hope it won’t dull that indomitable, fair-minded, sanguine and, yes, patriotic New England spirit. It’s a spirit rooted in our deep, abiding respect for human life and dignity.