When Taking Back the City Means Returning to the Scene of the Crime

In the relentless Boston bombing anniversary coverage, the tagline on one local news channel is, "Let's Remember, Let's Run." Can we really do both?

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Reuters

BOSTON—In the relentless coverage of the Boston Marathon, the tagline on the local Fox News channel is "Let's Remember, Let's Run." For this city, which already becomes a giant sports arena every spring, I've been wondering how it's possible to do both.

Remembering, in the new normal, has been well established. After senseless tragedy, the urban landscape is host to instant makeshift memorials. Flowers and photographs and artifacts occupied seemingly every inch of space in front of St. Paul's Chapel in lower Manhattan after 9/11. After the bombings on Boylston Street a year ago, the tributes sprouted at Copley Square park. The running shoe in particular became a symbol of remembrance, honoring the three killed at the finish line and hundreds maimed.

Makeshift memorials, and their appendage, the TV truck, inevitably enter a phase where they are questioned. They become a kind of tourist destination; they fill up public space in a way that is decidedly unplanned. By definition, they cannot be permanent. But their spontaneous and genuine character seems to require curating. The Boston Public Library is currently hosting the exhibit "Dear Boston," a collection of notes, bouquets, medals, and above all, running shoes. City officials harvested all of it in June last year, and stored it in the municipal archives.

Volunteers unroll canvases from the Prayer Canvas project on the Boston Common in Boston, Massachusetts. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)



The library is at the finish line of the Boston Athletic Association's world-famous road race. The makeshift memorial won't be out in the open, but it will be literally right behind the people sitting on risers on Boylston Street on Monday. And in the back of everyone’s mind. The juxtaposition is awkward, the message mixed. How do we meditate and cheer on and hoot and holler, all at the same time?

September 11 is honored by reading the names of victims each year, a memorial tribute that is plain and solemn. The moment of silence at the exact time of the tragedy, the ringing of church bells – it will happen every year in Newtown, Connecticut, too, and sadly, an increasing number of unhappy anniversaries. Boston followed this choreography earlier this week, at 2:49 p.m., on April 15. The vice president, governor, and present and former mayor stood in a line across Boylston Street in the rain.

The running of the race on Monday is the true commemoration, however. The moment will just not be silent. A record number of spectators will line the route cheering on the largest-ever field of runners, including charity runners who were diverted from the finish line, or are running raising money for foundations formed in the aftermath of the bombings. Full disclosure: my wife is running for Team MR8, for the foundation established for Martin Richard, the 8-year-old killed by the blast.

Running shoes left at the makeshift memorial following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings are displayed in an exhibit titled "Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial" at the Boston Public Library in Boston, Massachusetts. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The mantra is to "take back the finish line," and it’s powerful stuff. Just watch Aerosmith's elegant version of "Dream On." What's challenging, for runners and especially spectators, is the re-occupation of the physical space that became a killing zone a year ago. Security, obviously, is Soshi-esque. Transit stations will be closed. Background checks are necessary to sit on the risers. Bags are banned, bags will be checked.

Some of the security protocols have been broadcast; some won't be, to make it harder to plan an attack. I am told that the concern is two-fold: a copycat, and a more serious terrorist, determined to pick at the wound, to drive home the point that out in the open of the city, one can never be 100 percent safe. The former only takes one jackass to unsettle the metropolis. The latter is unthinkable. As a veteran friend of mine observed, last year's bombings could have been a lot worse, if orchestrated by more determined professionals.

So the question remains: what kind of emotional gauntlet is required to participate in this public event, honor what happened a year ago, and yet not be gripped by worry and fear? How could we re-inhabit offices high over the Hudson, or re-live the morning, the drop-off at the classroom, or the walk across campus?

In the city of memory in real time, it will be a test like no other.

Top image: A woman waits at a bus stop near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

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