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Don't mess with Boston

BOSTON — When I was 9 years old, at the height of the busing crisis in 1974, I drove with my parents and brother through South Boston on our way to Dorchester, where we lived.

On West Broadway we got stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic and crawled for a mile through one of the more frightening mass gatherings I've ever witnessed. Effigies of Judge Arthur Garrity and Sen. Edward Kennedy and Mayor Kevin White were hung from street lamps and set afire. The flames were reflected in the windows of my father's Chevy, and I looked through them at the faces of a mob so incensed it was medieval.

Reason was not popular on West Broadway that night. Nor was compassion or a desire to debate our differences with nuance or a respect for complexity. In the place of civil discourse, rage ruled.

I bring this up now, in the wake of a terrorist attack on the city where I was born and from which I draw my creative fuel, for two reasons. (1) Because that night was my ur-experience, if you will, with rage. I'd seen anger, of course, and I'd seen violence, too, but rage — beyond reason, beyond intellect, beyond conciliation — was a different beast. (2) When I speak of my love for this city, it will be understood that the love does not come filtered through a soft-focus lens. I'm fully aware of the sins that litter the Hub's rearview.

But I do love this city. I love its atrocious accent, its inferiority complex in terms of New York, its nut-job drivers, the insane logic of its street system. I get a perverse pleasure every time I take the T in the winter and the air-conditioning is on in the subway car, or when I take it in the summer and the heat is blasting. Bostonians don't love easy things, they love hard things: blizzards, the bleachers in Fenway Park, a good brawl over a contested parking space.

Two different friends texted me the identical message: They messed with the wrong city. This wasn't a macho sentiment. It wasn't "Bring it on" or a similarly insipid bit of posturing. The point wasn't how we were going to mass in the coffee shops of the South End to figure out how to retaliate. Law enforcement will take care of that, thank you. No, what a Bostonian means when he or she says "They messed with the wrong city" is "You don't think this changes anything, do you?"

Trust me, we won't be giving up any civil liberties to keep ourselves safe because of this. We won't cancel next year's marathon. We won't drive to New Hampshire and stockpile weapons. When the details about the weak and terminally maladjusted culprits are filled in, we'll roll our eyes at discovering whatever backward ideology they embrace and move on with our lives.

A half-hour after the attacks, I crossed the marathon route 2 miles west of the explosions to drop my tax return off at the post office. By this time I knew what had happened; the whole city did. Beacon Street was splattered with enough crushed Gatorade cups to give it the appearance of a poppy field.

A lot of hugging was going on. People stared at their phones even though cell service was down. I passed a homeless woman on a bench. She asked, "Them demons been caught yet?" I said I didn't know. She said, "They will, they will."

A few blocks later, I came upon a young woman in runner's clothing sitting on a lawn, weeping. I asked her if she was all right. She nodded. I asked if I could get her anything or do anything for her, and she shook her head.

I went home and tried to explain to my 4-year-old daughter that the reason Mommy and Daddy were upset was because bad people had done some bad things. I'm not used to feeling so limited when it comes to expressing myself, but trying to explain an act of mass murder to a 4-year-old rendered me as close to speechless as I can remember being.

My daughter asked if the bad men were like the bad woman who hit her on the head with a suitcase last time we were on a plane and then didn't apologize. I assured her the bad men were worse, and my daughter asked if they would hit her on the head when she was on the street. I promised her they wouldn't, but really, what do I know? The bad men — strangers — wait to hit us on the head. Or remove our limbs. Or shake our conviction that the world should be a place where people live free of fear.

When the civilian bystanders to the attack ran toward the first blast to give aid to the victims, without a second thought for their own safety, the primary desire of the terrorists — to paralyze a populace with fear — was already thwarted.

The little men who did this will, I have faith, be forgotten. Whatever hate movement they belong to will ultimately go the way of the anarchist assassination movements of the early 20th century or the Symbionese Liberation Army of the 1970s. Those killed and maimed, starting with 8-year-old Martin Richard of my neighborhood, Dorchester, and his injured sister and mother, will be remembered. The community will eulogize the dead and provide care and solace for the injured. And, no, we'll never forget. But even after the lockdown, we'll cling tightest to is what the city was built on — resilience, respect and an adoration for civility and intellect. Boston took a punch that left it staggering for a bit. Flesh proved vulnerable, as flesh is wont to do, but the spirit merely trembled before recasting itself into something stronger than any bomb or rage.

Dennis Lehane is the author, most recently, of "Live By Night," a novel set mainly in Tampa. He lives in Boston and St. Petersburg. Lehane is a graduate of Eckerd College and co-founder of its Writers in Paradise program.

© 2013 New York Times

Don't mess with Boston 04/24/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 5:47pm]
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