The Marathon Bombings

posted by Scott Schaeffer-Duffy on May 27th, 2013

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April 15th started out full of hope. The weather was perfect as 27,000 men and women from 60 different nations lined up for the 117th Boston Marathon. I saw racers of every age, some in wheelchairs, some blind running with guides. There were even two dwarves. Thousands ran for special causes. The diversity and positive spirit was incredible.

I ran well until 18 miles when my quads seized up. I slowed down and eventually walked a few stretches. After training all winter, I can’t tell you how frustrating it was. To make matters worse, at the 22-mile mark, I was passed by a young man in a hamburger costume. I cried, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” But then, seeing the agony visible on my face, fans lining the course cheered like I was an elite runner. Children put out their hands for me to slap, and I felt the inherent goodness of the marathon.

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Aiden & Scott moments before the bombings

At 24.5 miles, my son Aiden, clad in his high school cross-country uniform, jumped the fence to help me finish. I was afraid I’d collapse, but Aiden kept me going. Once we turned from Hereford to Boylston Street and could see the finish, he encouraged me to find the strength to sprint. We crossed the line together and had just had our picture taken, when we heard an enormous explosion. We turned around and saw the second bomb go off. Our hearts sank.

We spent the next two hours anxious for news. Most runners had family and friends still on the course. Thankfully, my wife Claire made a last minute decision to avoid Boylston Street.

On the morning after the bombings, she and I went to Mass to pray for the injured. Crossing the Boston Common afterwards, we saw rows of military vehicles, along with heavily armed and armored soldiers and police officers.

That afternoon, Rebekah Chessic, our intern from Assumption College, posted on Facebook, “We are not alone. So many across the world are mourning the loss or injury of friends and loved ones…” Rebekah received a torrent of angry responses calling her “unbelievably insensitive” and “vile.”

Four days later, bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev killed MIT police officer Sean Collier and then car-jacked a vehicle. After a chase and gun battle, police shot and killed Tamerlan while Dzhokar escaped. In an attempt to capture him, police put the bulk of Boston and surrounding cities under marital law. Mass transportation was halted. People were told not to go to work or leave their homes. Police toting assault weapons searched houses without warrants or success in finding the suspect. Only when the lock-down was lifted did a man discover the wounded Dzhokar Tsarnaev hiding under a boat. Police fired three hundred rounds before arresting the unarmed suspect.

Once in custody, Dzhokar was questioned without a lawyer, and a military trial was openly discussed. Some columnists and politicians called for stronger immigration restrictions, while others favored widespread video monitoring and even drone surveillance of next year’s Boston Marathon. One letter writer to The Worcester Telegram said, “It is long past time for us to go ‘Israeli’ with security in this country.”

Two weeks later, after Tamerlan’s body was accepted by Graham Putnam and Mahoney Funeral Home in Worcester, the mortuary was besieged by a flag-waving mob that wanted his body “thrown in a wood chipper”or returned to Russia. Peter Stefan, the funeral home’s director, is well-known for his willingness to bury unwanted souls. He was the only mortician in Massachusetts who would bury AIDS victims in the early years of that epidemic. He buries the poorest of the poor. (He laid to rest two of our guests.) When asked why he would accept the body of a “terrorist,” Mr. Stefan cited his oath as a funeral director to give everyone a decent burial. He even said, “I’d bury Adolf Hitler if they asked me to. I’m not burying what he stood for; I’m just burying the body.”

After it was reported in The Worcester Telegram that I planned a vigil to support Mr. Stefan, an anonymous caller told me I was a “media whore” and that “Holding this vigil is like putting a gun to your head.” I asked the man, “Did you lose a loved one to the bombings? Do you know someone who was injured or who ran the marathon?” After he answered “No,” I asked, “How is it then that you are filled with so much more anger than I am when half of my family could have been killed?” Thankfully, no one was harmed at our vigil, and Tsarnaev’s body was privately laid to rest on May 9.

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Women, in front of Graham Putnam & Mahoney, say,“We need compassion, not hate, in the face of tragedy.”

It has been three very emotional weeks. From the outset, I shared Rebekah’s initial reaction. The sound of the Boston bombs vividly evoked memories of atrocities I was close to overseas. I especially recalled standing by the ruins of a West Jerusalem pizza parlor where, 24 hours earlier, a Palestinian suicide bomber had killed himself and 15 others, including nine children. My mind was also drawn to a service I attended in Kabul for nine young boys machine-gunned from a low-flying US helicopter.

The willful murder of the innocent is so appalling that it’s hard not to conclude that the perpetrators are monsters who deserve no quarter. But that kind of thinking lead the US, after 3,000 civilians were murdered on 9/11, to kill 300,000 civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq. Terror breeds terror. The 800,000 Iraqi children killed by US-led sanctions were part of Osama bin Laden’s rationalization for attacking civilians in New York City. The German bombing of Coventry expunged British remorse for the fire-bombing of Dresden. The same can be said about Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. As an Irish historian once said, “The past murders the future.”

It is natural to feel shock, grief, and anger over the cruelty of the marathon bombings, but we will never escape the cycle of violence and hate without empathizing with others, especially those our government murders in our name. Unfortunately, politicians seldom make this connection. On April 18, at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross, President Obama offered solace to the marathon bombing victims, and then went home to lead a government that murders innocents with drones and tortures other innocents in Guantánamo.

As bad as the President was, the Vice President was worse. At the Sean Collier’s funeral, Biden dragged out the Bush/Cheney line that terrorists attack us because they hate our goodness. Biden ignored testimony before the US Senate that drone missile attacks on civilians in Yemen were driving people to join Al Qaeda. He paid no mind to reports that the marathon bombers may have been angry over the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He could not acknowledge that American violence had turned anyone against us. The arrogance was stunning. Biden’s summation was even worse. He quoted Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy” out of context. The poem bemoans Catholic and Protestant victims in Northern Ireland, but Biden misused it as a rallying cry for US victory in the war on terror. Have we no shame?

More questions are arising. How will payouts of upwards to a million dollars for marathon bombing victims play in Afghanistan where families of those killed by US troops are offered only $2,000 or $3,000? Is anyone offering to compensate the thousand innocent victims of corporate greed at the garment factory in Bangladesh? Are the Afghan and Bangladeshi lives worth less?

In the two weeks following the marathon, 29 people of color were shot, six of them killed, in Boston. Police Commissioner Edward Davis said, “There’s been an outpouring of sympathy from across the world that doesn’t attach to what happens in the day in and out…. Each life is precious and should receive the same type of attention.” NAACP leaders are asking if racism is not partially responsible for the disparity.

At times like this, American Muslims are especially sensitive to bigotry (recall how they were falsely accused for the Oklahoma City bombing). Our friend Nana Abdelkader, whose son lives and goes to school a couple of blocks from where the bombs went off, said, “I am so sick and tired of my faith being on trial every time some psycho who happens to be Muslim does something wrong; as if Muslims don’t have psychological disorders or people in that group don’t snap like everyone else does. NO ONE questioned the faith of the Adam Lanza, or the guy who shot Congresswoman Gifford in Arizona, or the medical student who killed people in a movie theater or Timothy McVeigh; and the list goes on.”

Former US Representative Ron Paul sounded yet another alarm when he decried “paramilitary police riding in tanks and pointing automatic weapons at innocent citizens.” He said the acceptance for putting cities under martial law was “unprecedented” and “should frighten us as much or more than the attack itself.”

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The American Civil Liberties Union spoke out against the government’s long delay in reading Tsarnaev his Miranda rights. Former Central Massachusetts ACLU director Ronal Madnick said, “These rights must be protected for everyone, regardless of who they are because if rights are withheld from someone, they can be taken away from anyone.”

Thankfully, there was a groundswell of support for Peter Stefan. Vickie Langohr of Watertown, Massachusetts said, “School shooters, murderers, and pedophiles are buried every day in the US Even the most heinous criminal has the right in the US to be defended by a lawyer, and every human deserves a dignified burial. Respecting the fundamental rights of all shows America at its best, and the directors and staff of the Graham Putnam and Mahoney Funeral home represent the highest values we possess.”

Boston resident Maria Rodrigues thanked Stefan for his “honorable efforts to care for the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and for trying to bury him with dignity.” She went on to say, “In these difficult times, your actions demonstrate the best that human beings have to offer, regardless of nationality or religion: we are able to rise above the barbarism of hate and intolerance, to upheld the virtues of respect and tolerance. Your actions make us strong, they make Boston strong, and the make America strong. Most of all, they honor the victims of Tsarnaev, who will not let hate defeat their courage.”

My own grief over the marathon bombings was healed considerably by the 43 people who came out on April 7 to vigil in support of Graham Putnam and Mahoney. The gathering reminded me of the decency of most Americans.

Another decent American, Martha Mullen of Virginia, was so upset with the anti-burial protesters, whom she felt “portrayed America at its worst,” that she took it upon herself to personally arrange Tsarnaev’s burial. She said she was motivated by Christ’s command to love our enemies.

Mullen’s goodness brought to mind Christina Olsen, who, after her sister was murdered on 9/11, joined Families for a Peaceful Tomorrow appealing to then President Bush not to go to war. She later went to Afghanistan to comfort the victims of US air strikes. With the moral athority of their loss, people like Christina put flesh on Christ’s call to love the enemy. Her love challenges me to reject vengeance as an appropriate response to the surviving Tsarnaev brother or his college friends, who tried to protect him from arrest. Rebekah’s critics want her to wait before broadening her compassion, but Christ forgave from the Cross itself, and Christina knew that love is most potent when it is most difficult to express.

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Hicham & Scott leave for the Boston Marathon

Lastly, I draw healing from continuing to run. Less than a week after the bombings, my friend Hicham Maalouf and I signed up for the Vermont Marathon on May 26. Although we are still recovering physically and emotionally from Boston, we are determined to race again as a statement of hope. Hicham and I are not alone. The Boston Globe reported on April 26 that runners are scrambling to find a summer marathon which will qualify them to run in Boston on April 22, 2014. It could be the largest turnout in the Boston Marathon’s 118 years. Globe columnist and runner Shira Springer said, “True to the spirit of the sport, marathoners want to show resiliency and contribute to something bigger, much bigger than a race, to give back in their own way by coming back.”

Non-runners often wonder what motivates people to run year-round in all weather. They think we are solitary masochists, but they don’t realize that we are part of a real community of friends, a family that wants to be together in all conditions. When violence strikes the innocent, the love of friends and family is a more powerful source of healing and security than the waving of flags or guns. I believe this resilient community will help us go on in hope.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2013 issue of The Catholic Radical.

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