Patriot's Day in Boston

Peter Wood

I lived in Boston for 25 years, a few blocks from the site of yesterday’s terrorist attacks. The last stretch of the Boston Marathon came past my windows on Commonwealth Avenue. Boston is a city I love: raucous and refined—the Big Green Monster and the Isabella Stuart Gardiner Museum, a stroll apart across the Fenway. I love Boston politics, where the head of the state Senate and the leader of the Winter Hill Gang (the Irish-American branch of organized crime) were real-life brothers Billy and Whitey Bulger. Billy reveled in his command of Latin texts.  Whitey aspired to living the life of a latter-day Caligula. 

The first explosion was a block from the Boston Public Library, with its vaulted reading room and paintings of the muses by Pierre de Chavannes and the series of murals by John Singer Sargent, “The Triumph of Religion.” There’s a theme to ponder.

As I write, no one has been arrested for the horrific violence—the killing of eight-year old Martin Richard among others, and the dismembering of many of the victims by the ball-bearing-filled bombs.

Boston, which prides itself on being the Athens of America, is crowded with colleges and universities. It won’t be a surprise if college students or professors are among the victims, but they are hardly to be singled out. The attack was an attack on America. Whatever maleficent mind nurtured this plot did so in simmering hatred for American life. The groups that improvise explosives to rip through innocent crowds have been quite precise about their motives. They disdain freedom in all its forms.  And they are pretty good at picking out targets that have some symbolic significance. 

Massachusetts has celebrated Patriot’s Day ever since George Washington with cannons poised on Dorchester Heights forced the British to withdraw to put their troops to the fleet and sail away. It used to be called “Evacuation Day.” The Boston Marathon became its main celebratory event. And not a bad choice, to have a long-distance race that commemorated the Athenian victory over the Persians stand in as a celebration of George Washington’s early triumph over the British. I won’t be surprised if the bomber or bombers knew that history. It was more than the opportunity to attack amateur athletes and spectators that came to hand. It was, fortuitously, an opportunity to attack a deep symbol of American freedom and independence. 

My heart goes out to the victims and their families. I suspect all of us are also feeling a bit less secure today than yesterday. 9/11 isn’t so far behind us that we have forgotten it but in the dozen years since, we have grown used to the excellent work of our police and intelligence services, which have fended off numerous attacks. In New York, the would-be Times Square bomber was forestalled by a vigilant citizen, and a plot to bomb the Herald Square subway station was intercepted by police. But in a society as open as ours and that has become host to a subculture of radicalized adversaries, sooner or later some of them will find a way to translate their hatred into bloodshed. 

How do we protect our freedom without so compromising it that it is no longer really freedom? That’s the deep question that we have had to live with these dozen years. There is no perfect answer. I know some will call, yet again, for a more ardent embrace of multiculturalism and attentiveness to the grievances of those who feel oppressed by the West.  It is a counsel that I think has little merit. Our nation has been attacked yet again. The death toll may be low, but the damage is sickening and it would be worse were it not for the incompetence of the bomb-makers. 

The counsel we really need to take comes from our history. George Washington is a little hard for us to see clearly behind the many layers of sentiment and myth, but he was among other things a shrewd and agile leader who summoned national resolve against a powerful enemy.  We have had to summon that resolve again, many times since, and not always found it ready to hand. It was, through one of those nice ironies of history, a British leader who reminded, “George, this is no time to go wobbly.” That was late Margaret Thatcher at an Aspen Conference in August 1990, advising President George Bush to stand his ground after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. 

We aren’t literally at war with whoever planted the bombs near Copley Square, but we are in the midst of that “low intensity conflict” that can eat the soul of a nation. We need to summon a little of our nation’s inner George Washington to face that ugly truth. I don’t know exactly what that would look like.  Washington forced the evacuation of the British from Boston with cannons captured at Fort Ticonderoga by Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys and laboriously hauled overland to give the Continental Army the firepower to capture Boston. The conflict of the moment doesn’t involve weapons, but it very much requires that steely resolve. We will run many marathons in the years ahead, saddened by this one and always with some apprehension at the finish line that we didn’t feel before. But run them we will.  

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October 6, 2020

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