In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, I couldn’t write. I knew that there would be the typical condemnations, accusations, and admonitions to not let a heinous and cowardly act diminish the freedom and self-improvement that the marathon represents. This is as it should be. Other commentators would warn us that the sport has forever changed and that we should all band together in solidarity. Again, a good sentiment. I really didn’t know what to think. I wondered what someone thought they could accomplish by killing and injuring spectators and runners at the Boston Marathon. There were, of course, no answers, so I did what many of us do when similarly stymied: I went for a run.
I went for an untimed run on my most regular route. The plan was to relax and think. I found myself, however, churning and breathing hard. I was not relaxed and I was having trouble thinking. I noticed that among many of the runners I passed, there were looks of determination that I had not seen before. These people had also heard the news and realized that running would be their response and salvation. I think we all recognized that there was solidarity in running and a way to resist the implications of the bombing. I can’t say that it was a particularly enjoyable run; but it was a meaningful one, and it did, finally, get me thinking.
When has running ever been just about running? I would have to say never. It has always been about something more – a way of resisting and questioning rigid social values, a way of calling into question cultural assumptions, a way of celebrating both individual freedom, as well as community endeavor and solidarity. Running means more than running. This is one of the reasons why I was beside myself when I started reading about how the Obama administration was initially trying to avoid the word terrorism (To be fair, President Obama – in today’s morning briefing – has since recognized that this was a terrorist act.), a semantic gymnastics that other news media initially decided to follow. No, the Boston Marathon bombing is the very definition of terrorism. The individual or group responsible for this heinous and barbaric crime picked a target that brings together a variety of cultural values within a social context that really does symbolize the United States at its best. The Boston Marathon, a race steeped in tradition as the nation’s oldest marathon, was established directly after the completion of the first modern Olympiad in 1896. At its best, the Olympic movement has been one of the most visible representations of internationalism and the promise of pluralism. The tradition of the Boston Marathon ties directly back to the highest ideals of humanity as symbolized by the Olympics. The fact that the marathon takes place on Patriot’s Day also connects it to an essential taproot of freedom in the United States. This is the day, after all, that celebrates the first shots of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord. In addition, this was the marathon that was being run to remember and honor the victims of the Sandy Hook school shootings. I think it is essential to realize that runners frequently participate in marathons to remember family members that have died of cancer, to raise money for charities that battle the various ills and diseases that plague society, and for reasons too personal to accurately catalogue. The marathon provides runners with the opportunity to physically sacrifice for a greater good, to offer a personal challenge to an often uncaring, materialist society, and to remember those who are no longer with us.
Each marathoner has their own personal reasons for running, and yet they are able to strive for individual accomplishment within a supportive community. It is the idea of individual freedom contained in a larger supportive and protective society. Hardly surprising, then, that the Boston Marathon is much more than a mere foot race. It is, instead, a living symbol of America at its best, in the past, the present, and the future. It encompasses the idea of the United States: people free to pursue their individual goals, to celebrate the self, but in the support of a common vision of community and society. This is why the Boston Marathon became such an attractive target for terrorists, because its meaning reflects our highest ideals of Americanism, internationalism, and humanism. There is an essential good in sacrificing for others and yourself, to push through impossible-seeming barriers, and to find a deeper meaning in your life. This terrorist attack, then, was an attack on our essential humanity.
The Boston Marathon’s rich history, cultural context, and meaning, may have made it an appealing terrorist target. However, these same attributes will make it impossible to destroy. Its success comes from individuals with a variety of motivations working in concert and solidarity to achieve something greater than themselves. The essential idea of the marathon – determination against the odds and overcoming adversity – means that it has the attributes to survive a barbaric and inhuman attack. The terrorist (or terrorists) correctly understood that the Boston Marathon is a cultural touchstone for the values that humanity at its best holds dear. They perhaps failed to recognize that these are also the values – collected in the symbol and reality of the marathon – that will ultimately spell the failure of this attack on humanity. Running really is about more than running.