Boston Stronger Than All That
Marathon Monday, atop October’s Head of the Charles Regatta and November’s even-year Harvard-Yale game, ranks as the most festive sports holiday in Massachusetts.
When a couple of poor sports crashed the party last year by killing three and maiming dozens, they also served as unwitting catalysts for an overwhelming feeling of regional pride and the reminder that Patriots’ Day, the occasion for the 117-year-old race, celebrates what Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev despised.
The Boston bombings highlight the city’s split personality, which remains undiagnosed even by lifelong inhabitants. Boston, to take an example unrelated to the marathon atrocity, is at once among America’s most progressive cities and among its most conservative cities. The hub of liberalism’s downright reactionary side shows itself in its past being ever present, the dynastic politics, and the preservationist architecture. Suggest knocking down Fenway Park and a local might knock you out as though you’ve spoken a blasphemy against the Kennedys. So that Boston would host heroism and cowardice, patriotism and treason, humanitarian good and murderous evil at last year’s race certainly meshes with the character of this complex character of a city.
The two villains who served terror from pressure cookers, like the heroes who ignored dangers to rescue others from it and later risked lives to stop terrorism from escaping to another city, came from the Boston area. The notion that the Brothers Tsarnaev picked up their anti-Americanism from the internet or trips to Russia remains more comforting than the painful reality that they, like everyone else, emerged soaked in the marinade of their community.
On last year’s anniversary of 9/11, the public high school serving the students from the town that launched the American Revolution 239 Patriots’ Days ago blared on its public address system a Muslim’s anti-American poem as it refrained from the Pledge of Allegiance. Renouncing his American citizenship, joining the Communist Party, and taking an extended vacation to Nazi Germany that resulted in a strange essay called “The German Case against Jews” didn’t disqualify W.E.B. Du Bois from posthumously lending his name to the tower library, the tallest such academic structure in the world, at the state’s flagship tax-funded university. In 1977, Governor Michael Dukakis declared a day in honor of Sacco and Vanzetti, anti-American anarchists executed for murdering two men transporting a company’s payroll for their workers.
Citizens of the Bay State—I am proud to call myself one—love America like Alabamans, Texans, and Ohioans love America. But Massachusetts also cultivates alienation from the surrounding nation to a degree that Alabama, Texas, and Ohio do not.
One need only trace the murderous path of the Tsarnaevs to grasp the region’s rocky relationship with patriotism, a synonym for fascism in the bluest parts of the bluest state. From their home in Cambridge’s Inman Square, named in honor of dishonorable loyalist Ralph Inman who attempted to flee to England, to marathon’s end in Copley Square, named in honor of the honorable artist John Singleton Copley who nevertheless sided with the crown and never came back, the Brothers Tsarnaev’s road to the finish line came within a community that has honored its patriots and its quislings.
Where did the Tsarnaevs learn to hate their country? Locals theorize their mosque, the internet, their vile mother, and other quite-plausible culprits. One malevolent influence overlooked by a great many Bostonians is Greater Boston. If the Tsarnaevs learned to hate America in America, then Cambridge—where on Cambridge Common almost a decade ago protestors booed as the child of a dead Medal of Honor winner led the Pledge of Allegiance at a birthday celebration for the US Army—surely would be an ideal place to absorb the alienation.
These contradictions intrinsic to the character of the city extend to issues beyond love of country. It’s a city that rioted to free “fugitive slave” Anthony Burns in 1854 and then rioted to free white kids from sharing classrooms with bussed-in black kids in 1974. It imagines itself as the Athens of America but served as the site of Quaker executions, the stronghold of the Know Nothing Party, and the inspiration of the phrase “Banned in Boston.” The birthplace of Boston Latin, the first public school in America, also gave children NAMBLA. The downside of local patriotism mirrors the downside of national patriotism: it downplays the bad and the ugly for an overemphasis of the good.
Boston, as the many commemorations of the marathon bombings attest, remembers. But it rarely remembers that it also forgets.
Boston is indeed strong. A city strong enough to beat two terrorists surely can beat a case of amnesia.