A city shaken

With Marathon bombings, Boston joins a grim club known too well by too many

THE FIRST FEELING of déjà vu came with my arrival Tuesday morning at the downtown building that houses the CommonWealth offices.  Instead of dashing through the entryway and up four flights of stairs (part of my piecemeal attempt at a fitness regimen), I was stopped by a security guard in the lobby who asked me to produce ID before heading upstairs.  After quickly glancing at my driver’s license, she waved me through. It was the same routine that greeted me on September 12, 2001, as I entered a downtown Boston office tower a block away for an early morning meeting on that “day after.”

Yesterday, as was true a dozen years ago, the security drill struck me as a fairly desperate effort to bring at least a thin veneer of order and security to a world with risks we simply are not able to eliminate.  But once the office buildings are secured, what about the shopping malls?  Downtown Crossing at midday?  My Red Line ride home? Or anyplace, for that matter, where a dozen people might congregate close together, an inviting “soft target” for someone bent on the mayhem that transformed the scene at the Boston Marathon finish line in an instant from a celebration of human perseverance to a sidewalk killing field.

We have joined the growing global fraternity that no one wants membership in: Those places that know from grievous first-hand experience that terror can strike anywhere.  The tributes to Boston’s strength, which started with President Obama’s statement Monday night that the city is “a tough and resilient town,” are heartfelt and, to those who know our feisty character, on target. Such pronouncements are welcomed and provide us some needed balm.  But the same would no doubt be said today about Buffalo or Boise or any American community that had to confront what Boston is now enduring. And the millions of innocents who have endured repeated suicide attacks, in Baghdad, in Kabul, in Tel Aviv, have had to build up a steely resolve that is hard to even imagine in places where terrorist violence is, thankfully, a truly alien shock, not an all too common reality.

In Boston on the day after, there were plenty of signs of that universal human resolve — along with somber reflection on those who have been lost, and what has been lost.

On the Boston Common, a costumed Patriot, complete with tricorn hat, walked backwards as he regaled visitors on his tour of the Freedom Trail.  A few paces behind them, a mother and a few kids were following the history-laden trail on their own, the woman reading aloud from a guidebook about the War of 1812.  Visitors were again eager to learn about the place with such a proud role ushering in the American experience, a city whose history remains a beacon for those seeking the freedom of self-governance.

 
 “We thought people could use a little cheering up,” said James Bailey of Suffolk University’s a cappella group.

On the steps of the Common leading up to the State House, a dozen members of Suffolk University’s a cappella group sang in multi-part harmony as a crowd gathered below on a sun-splashed afternoon.  One of the group’s members, James Bailey, a junior from Pembroke, explained that this was their regularly scheduled rehearsal time, and the chorus decided to move outside to the Common and turn it into an impromptu performance instead. “We thought people could use a little cheering up,” he said.

Halfway down the Common to Charles Street, four members of a Somerville Christian youth group offered free hugs. One member held a sign reading, “Pray for Boston.”

The area between the Common and the cordoned-off blocks around the Copley Square site of the two bomb blasts was overrun with media.  A trio of television reporters stood in a row at the corner of Boylston and Arlington streets. The area was bathed in TV lights with satellite trucks lining the street.  The curious gathered around, snapping pictures of the media personalities. If there were many examples of grace throughout the city, this was an unsettling reminder of the vapid media culture that also has a big draw on many. It was a meta moment in which it was no longer the events on Monday but the news coverage itself that became the news.

By mid-afternoon, I returned to CommonWealth’s offices. The security guard was tending to something near the elevators. I slipped up the stairs unnoticed.

As night fell, I gathered with hundreds of my Dorchester neighbors at Garvey Park to remember eight-year-old Martin Richard, a community doing what it can to hold up a family facing unimaginable loss and pain.

Earlier in the afternoon, two flower bouquets sat on the street at the corner of Boylston and Clarendon, as close to the cordoned off bomb site as one could get. The wind whipped around a pile of mylar blankets that had been given to runners as they crossed the marathon finish line.  “Stay Strong Boston” read a card taped to one of the bouquets.

In the end, after every reasonable security precaution is put in place, that’s the least we can do — and the most.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.