BOSTON — On Boylston Street, crowds gathered to stare in disbelief at a city that may never be the same.
An armored personnel carrier idled on a nearby street corner and armed National Guard troops flanked the sidewalks. The police barricades marked a 12-block crime scene. Makeshift vigils of flowers and heartfelt messages of prayer and remembrance were clustered here and there. And the sound of birds chirping on a glorious spring day seemed incongruous for a city so stunned it was as if the blast was still ringing in its collective ears.
Watching the television footage of the aftermath of Monday’s bombing of the Boston Marathon, it seemed the flood of images were all too familiar to me. All I could think is how many times I had seen this same kind of carnage and the choreography of grief in terrorist bombings around the world. It seemed too grim to try to count every one of them, but I could easily rattle off 20 cities in the last 20 years where I had covered bombings.
The immediate aftermath always seems to look similar, whether it was Belfast, Northern Ireland in the early 1990s or Baghdad, Iraq during the past 10 years: the shattered glass crunching underfoot at the crime scene, twisted metal pushed aside to help the wounded, the blood-soaked sidewalks, the stunned and blood-spattered faces and the dramatic human stories emerging from hospital waiting rooms — or the morgue.
The investigations just about always follow a pattern, whether in Jerusalem throughout the late 1990s or London, England in July 2005: the search for the ‘signature of the blast’ in hope it will lead to suspects; the waves of impatient and faulty reporting that can seep out on the airwaves in the difficult days of waiting; the grainy cellphone photos and video and CCTV footage that might yield a glimpse of the bomber; and the painstaking gathering of tiny shards of forensic evidence that will eventually break the case.
The reporting will take journalists on an inevitable journey, as it has from Kabul, Afghanistan since 2001 and as it did in Oklahoma City in April 1995: a pathway into the shadowy world of extremists and fundamentalists and insurgents and strange loners in an attempt to try to understand what could possibly motivate anyone to do something so cowardly and despicable.
Sometimes that path leads to Islamic fundamentalist teaching and its warped interpretation of the Quran as put forward by the death cults inspired by al-Qaeda, as in Madrid’s train bombings in 2004 and as it did on too many occasions to count in Baghdad and in Kabul. Sometimes it heads toward the beliefs of Second Amendment fundamentalists in the Patriot Movement or other right-wing, American extremists who believe that they are at war with the government because, as the attackers in Oklahoma City saw it, the feds are trying to take away their guns and therefore their freedom.
Whatever it turns out motivated this attack on Boston and its marathon, whether it is domestic or international terrorism, most of us will just end up shaking our heads in disbelief that anyone could actually go so far as to kill innocent people for a set of twisted beliefs.
But this time, despite all the similarities, it’s all very different. This time it was not a far-off dateline or a foreign capital. This time it was my hometown.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be so different, but it is.
Even though so many of the attacks I have covered have had far higher death tolls, this one seemed more raw and shocking as it occurred at such a great and positive communal event, a kind of pageant of good will and good health that seemed so far from a conflict zone or some towering symbol of power.
You just can’t help but feel different about a terrorist attack when the accents of those grieving the loss of their son and daughter are the same accent you grew up with, when the freckled faces of the fallen look as familiar as family. It’s not the same when the eight-year-old boy who was killed is remembered in a snapshot of him in a Bruins shirt at the Garden looking out and beaming just like one of your own sons. And it’s different when the news comes with worry and frantic phone calls and texts about all your friends and loved ones who were running in the marathon or there as spectators and who you feared could be right there in the blast wave at the finish line.
It’s different when the public officials leading the investigation and speaking words of calm confidence are people who you know, people you’ve covered for years as they rose up in positions of authority. This is not distant, this is not far away, this is not ‘foreign reporting’ or the work of a ‘war correspondent.’ This is local reporting of a global event.
As anyone who grew up in Boston knows, Patriots’ Day is the best day of the year in our world-class city. As a kid, I remember standing on the sidewalks high-fiving the runners of the marathon. Later, as I came of age, I remember landing a ticket to Fenway for the Red Sox, the other great venue on this best of days.
Some years, it was just strolling the city and taking it all in. In 1993, I was in Waco, Texas, covering the fiery end to the Branch Davidian sect which gave a different level of meaning to Patriots’ Day. And then on April 19, 1995, I was dispatched to Oklahoma City to cover the attack on the Federal Building which killed 168 people. It turned out to be the work of a former soldier and Second Amendment fundamentalist Timothy McVeigh, who saw Patriots’ Day as a call to arms against his own government.
For many years while I was reporting abroad in the Middle East and Central Asia, I often found myself longing for home on that third Monday in April when I knew my friends and family were more than likely taking in the tradition of Patriots’ Day. Last year was one of my favorite celebrations in a long time as I took two of my sons to the Old North Bridge in Concord to see the early-morning reenactment of the first battle of the Revolutionary War in April 1775.
This year, I was laid up after knee surgery and home watching the marathon on television to see the winners cross the finish line, cursing the scheduling of my doctor that the relatively minor day surgery had kept me from being there on such a beautiful day. And then a neighbor came in, asking if we had heard the news, and suddenly we all felt very lucky that fate and circumstance kept us away. Soon there were more than a dozen neighbors clustered around our TV, watching horrifying images and making just-less-than-frantic phone calls accounting for husbands and friends and other neighbors who were either running in or watching the marathon.
All were accounted for, but there was a creeping sense that something profound was lost, that the city was changed. It was a feeling tempered by a determination that Boston is a place that knows how to bounce back. I’ve seen this in so many great cities like Belfast, Jerusalem, London, Madrid and elsewhere where the people show their defiance to terrorism by sweeping up the shattered glass, fixing the blown-out windows and getting on with their lives.
Mayor Thomas Menino, sitting in a wheel chair at a packed press conference recovering from a broken foot at the tail end of a historic run in the corner office in City Hall, put it well in his trademark Boston accent when he said, “This is a tragedy, but Boston is a strong city… Boston will overcome.”
For me, the most memorable image of this scarred marathon was the footage of the 78-year-old runner, Bill Iffrig, just 15 yards from the finish line as he was hit by the blast wave. It knocked him to the ground. And, as it turned out, Iffrig got up and finished the race. And in the end of the day, that’s what Boston will do. It will get up and dust itself off and never allow terrorism to take it off course.