Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Marathon Day

Boston is my home, my beloved city, although I have not lived there for many years. And Patriot's Day, the Monday of the Boston Marathon, is the proudest day in a proud city's year. We open our city to all, and hold one of the world's greatest sporting events, the oldest annual marathon on the globe. We hold that race in public streets and fill the sidewalks to cheer. It is Boston's day to celebrate the many things that make it Boston.

Tonight the news is asking who did this and what they want. Of course, there are no answers to those questions yet. 24-hour news only fills the anxious time before anyone knows anything real, and makes those hours more anxious. But what the bombers want, what any bombers want, is not important. What matters is what they want to take away from us. Why they attacked does not matter, because their beliefs cannot justify this deed. What they attacked does matter, because that is what we have to keep them from taking away.

The Marathon is a celebration of athletic excellence and discipline, of course. And it has become a symbol of human willpower overcoming adversity. No one can watch the Hoyts run their race without understanding that this is about the will to face challenges and overcome them. But the Marathon was deliberately symbolic from the first. The race began in 1897, the year after the first modern Olympic Games revived the marathon as a sporting event. The Greek Revival spirit of the event resonated with Boston's vision of itself as the Athens of America, our country's university city, heir to classical learning and values. More importantly, the legacy of the ancient Greeks was bound up, as it was for the Founding Fathers, with democracy itself; celebrating an intellectual link to the ancient Athenians (in the most grueling physical way possible) inevitably means celebrating a tradition of democracy. It's not for nothing that Boston runs the Marathon on Patriot's Day, which celebrates the anniversary of Lexington and Concord. In some way that never gets spoken outright, the Marathon is a celebration of American democracy in the city that birthed the Revolution.

But the Marathon is also a game of peace, founded in the wake of the Olympic movement for many of the same reasons. It is a reenactment of the Greeks' peaceful competitions. The Boston Marathon has lived up to that Olympic ideal, drawing athletes from around the globe. Inevitably, the running of the Marathon is a celebration of the openness, the public freedom, that make a great city great (and in truth make it a city in the first place). It requires a city open to visitors from around the world. It requires a city where half a million people can gather and cheer in the streets. Holding the marathon at all celebrates the essence of urban civilization: a civic space shared by multitudes of strangers, living together in peace.

This is what the bombers want to destroy: democratic values. A dedication to shared history. Resolution in the face of adversity. Peace. International cooperation. Public space and public institutions free for all. A city of open streets and open minds.

Terrorism wants to convince us that we cannot afford these things. It works to tell us that such things are luxuries for the naive. But these are exactly the things that we must not give up, because we cannot do without them. Because these are the things terrorists fear most of all.

Boston is a city and not a fortress. The last attempt to turn it into a fort, shortly after Lexington and Concord, was an abject failure. Terrorists hate cities, hate places where people can walk the streets, can meet and talk in peace, because terrorists fear civilization itself.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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