The particular cruelty of the attack near the finish line of the Boston Marathon is not just that bombs killed and injured real people with real lives and real families who loved them. Who love them still.
That is only the starting place.
The pictures from the scene, the descriptions of witnesses—runners nearing the finish line, the roar of the two explosion, runners suddenly legless, the street awash in blood and gore—are so horrifying in their brutality that they must shock any and all of us who adhere to the markers of a civil, decent world.
It is said that sport can show the path to a better world. It offers windows to a world in which we can talk to each other in ways we might not otherwise find. Through the tests of body, mind and soul, sport can illuminate such things as friendship, excellence and respect—the so-called Olympic values.
There is in all of sport perhaps no greater individual test than the marathon. It’s just you and yourself out there. No matter how many thousands of people are in the race with you, it’s really just you and however much will you can summon to keep going.
This would seem what the blasts were really aimed at Monday.
They were timed to do maximum damage not just in the real world we live in.
They were aimed at an idea—more, at an ideal.
The blasts were, of course, a statement. Why else did they go off near the finish line of the marathon that is, of all the road races in the world, the most venerated?
Three people were killed, 176 people were treated at area hospitals and 17 are in critical condition from the two blasts, authorities reported. The explosions went off, seconds apart, about four hours after the start of the men’s race.
Roupen Bastajian, a state trooper from Rhode Island, was receiving his finisher’s medal after completing the race in 4 hours, 2.42 seconds. He crossed at 2:43 p.m., about seven minutes before the first explosion, as he told the New York Times. He thought at first it might be a symbolic cannon. Then he heard the second blast and started running toward the white smoke. He saw at least 40 people on the ground.
“These runners just finished and they don’t have legs now,” Bastajian said. “So many of them. There are so many people without legs. It’s all blood. There’s blood everywhere. You got bones, fragments. It’s disgusting. It’s like a war zone.”
President Barack Obama, in a statement from the White House, said, “We will get to the bottom of this. We will find out who did this, and we will find out why they did this. Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice.”
The president did not refer to the attacks as an act of terrorism. He cautioned everyone from “jumping to conclusions.”
You can be sure, however, that federal, state and law enforcement authorities are going to treat this as terrorism. You’ve got multiple explosive devices. On a stage designed to attract national and international attention. That equals an act of terror.
The pressing question, of course, is: What is the motive behind Monday’s attack?
Monday was tax day in the United States. Is that it?
Or it was the Patriots’ Day holiday Monday in Massachusetts, which commemorates the opening battles of the American Revolutionary War, the battles of Lexington and Concord, on April 19, 1775. Massachusetts switched its observation of the day itself to the third Monday in April in 1969, and Patriots’ Day there in recent years is as much known for the marathon as for the holiday.
The holiday, however, carries significance for anti-government activists and this third week in April carries a number of anniversaries with potential significance:
• the assault in Waco, Texas, that ended a 51-day standoff and left 80 members of a religious group called the Branch Davidians dead (April 19, 1993);
• the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, which officials have said was carried out in part as a response to the Waco event (April 19, 1995); and
• the school shootings in Columbine, Colo. (April 20, 1999) and at Virginia Tech (April 16, 2007).
The shootings at Virginia Tech and the Waco assault took place on a Monday those particular years. Is there a connection to any or all of those events?
As everyone knows, security at all sports events has ramped up considerably since the Munich 1972 Games and again since 9/11.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) spokesman Mark Adams, quoted by Associated Press, said “first thoughts” were with the victims of Monday’s attack and their families. Rio 2016 organizers expressed their “deep thoughts and condolences” and Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, condemned what she called an “insane act of violence.”
Brazil, host to not just the 2016 Summer Games but the 2014 World Cup, has never confronted a significant threat of terror attacks.
The inescapable truth is that a marathon is 100 percent impossible to make safe. The corollary: that makes a marathon, especially one of the majors, a hugely attractive target.
The 2004 Athens Games marathon was disrupted when Neil Horan, a defrocked Irish priest who that day was wearing a red kilt, knocked race leader Vanderlei de Lima off course with just five kilometers to go. Stunned, de Lima picked himself up and continued to race, eventually finishing third. Horan, who had a history of mental illness, was given a 12-month suspended jail term, a 3,000-Euro fine and banned from all future sports events.
What happened Monday in Boston is, needless to say, several orders of magnitude beyond that.
At the same time, it reinforces the point—a marathon cannot be made “safe.”
The London Marathon is due to take place Sunday. Officials there, according to a statement released by the London Marathon Twitter account, are already reviewing security arrangements.
Whoever set off those bombs in Boston sought to effect maximum damage. Literally, figuratively and—perhaps most important—to our collective imagination. Because the Boston Marathon is run by 27,000 people and 500,000 come to watch every year.
Lauren Fleshman, one of America’s top female runners, was in Boston, cheering on friends. She wrote on her blog that the “area by the finish was so packed that you couldn’t even move.”
She also wrote, “The Boston Marathon has so many stories from thousands of people that won’t be told, because a few people are cruel and crazy and impossible to understand, and that makes me even sadder than I already am.”
Paul Thompson, a 29-time finisher of the race, a sports cardiologist who has made a career out of studying the health implications of running the Boston Marathon, talked with the Wall Street Journal as he was driving away from the bloody scene near the finish line. He was crying.
“For what? For what?” he said. “These people are totally innocent. They’re not engaged in combat.”
This commentary by Alan Abrahamson first appeared in the blog, The Sport Intern. The editor is Karl Heinz-Huba of Lorsch, Germany. He can be reached at ISMG@aol.com. The article is reprinted here with permission of Mr. Heinz-Huba.