Dear Terrorist: An Open Letter To The Person Who Bombed My City
The sun came up over Boston today as though it has no idea that anything is changed here. Did you see it?
I first moved to Boston in 1995, to go to Boston University. I lived on Bay State Road for a couple of years, then Park Drive for a couple more, and then, in 1999, rising rents sent me fleeing to Revere, a North Shore suburb home to some complicated demographics, but historically a working-class town.
You might know Revere, though, because I guess you may have lived here -- or maybe someone who knows you or helped you does. When I woke up this morning I heard that overnight the FBI had been into an apartment building less than a mile down the road from where I live, an apartment building I drive past at least four times every weekday. Sometimes more.
When I drove past that building this morning, it was still littered with local news vans, and I had the surreal experience of seeing a reporter whom I had just watched on television moments before doing another live spot on the side of the road. Two minutes from my home. I remembered how I looked into renting in those buildings when I first moved to Revere, but they were awfully expensive rents for small spaces. If you lived there, you were probably paying for the view.
I drove down the beach heading into Boston, which is about four miles away. Did you ever spend time on Revere Beach? It’s a registered landmark, the first public beach in the United States, established in 1895 for the use of everyday working people, including a large local immigrant population. They called it “the people’s beach.” I love it because, even today, it’s one of very few places in the Boston area where you can reliably see real diversity, Metro Boston being such a racially and ethnically segregated place as a general rule.
I wonder if you’ve ever sat on the sea wall on the beach, where I have sat, on a sunny spring day, like today, and looked at the water, and at all the different people enjoying themselves, and thought how beautiful the world can be.
I drove past the Stop N Shop, and I wonder if you’ve been there too. If that was your apartment, you would have. It’s the only grocery store in the area now that the one in the shopping center near the Wonderland T station has closed. There is a Target in that plaza as well. I wonder if I’ve walked past you while carrying toilet paper and toothpaste and distractedly thinking about needing to schedule a dental cleaning while you were ruminating on your plans to bomb the Boston marathon.
There is a line between the mundane and the horrific, and it’s a finer thread than any of us realize until it’s broken. This is how all terrors begin -- in one moment everything is normal and predictable, and in the next it’s as if the world has been turned inside out and your brain needs time to adapt to this new unfamiliar reality. Arguably, it is the suddenness of the change, the lack of warning that anything is on the verge of going wrong, to which the terror owes its impact.
I first encountered this line when I and three friends were hit by a car on the last day of school in 8th grade. We were happy, talking excitedly about our summer plans, and suddenly I was on my back on the street, my vision streaked with snapping lights against the bright blue sky, and my friend Stephanie was trapped under a car, her skin melting against the exhaust pipe like candle wax. How did this happen?
I find it again in any tragedy. I can recognize it now. I found it on September 11. On September 11 I felt utter devastation. It was too much. I watched the towers fall on live television and cried like I would never stop, because nothing could ever be the same after that, because something had been irretrievably spoiled and there was no getting it back.
I found it more recently on December 14, when 20 children and seven adults were slaughtered in Newtown, CT. And I felt the deepest sadness and loss, asking why anyone would destroy so many lives in this way, but also exhaustion, because how long will this go on?
The place you attacked is a place I know well. A week ago I parked my car on the street at the exact point where the first explosion took place. I have walked along that sidewalk where people died more times than I can count. You set bombs outside the Boston Public Library, where I go to work, at least one day a week, when I want human companionship but also writing-friendly silence.
The library is closed today, because of you.
When that thread is broken, a normal day becomes something else. Time slows down. In the following hours and days and weeks, you come to see yourself as a series of soft and vulnerable spots -- you see where you can be hurt, in places you never thought anyone would think to harm you. You realize that no time and no place is every truly safe.
Everything feels delicate, fragile, everything feels tender. Everything feels violated. What is that sidewalk now? The ubiquitous photographs of horrible injuries, the blood left behind, the scattered debris -- now and forever, when I walk over that sidewalk, is it yours? Did you take it away from me? From all of the rest of us?
I wish I could go there now, and kneel and put my palms flat on the pavement. I want to go there today, and I can’t, because the investigation into your atrocity continues. The area is blocked off, inaccessible, as police and FBI agents try to reconstruct the thousand broken pieces you left behind.
Is fear fatigue a thing? Following September 11, I was afraid of everything. I developed significant situational anxiety issues that I continue to struggle with today. Even now, at least once daily I will grapple with imagining some terrorist horror befalling someone I care about.
But I am tired of being afraid. As the image of what you’d done came together yesterday, I didn’t feel afraid, or devastated, or hopeless -- I felt angry. I felt enraged. I thought, how dare you. How dare you do this. How dare you touch my home with your senseless hatred. How dare you bring this to my front door, to the places I love, to the people I care about. Don’t you know who we are?
In my 18 years here, no one has ever let me forget that I am an outsider, because to be born of Boston is a particular truth. For people who were born here, their origins are a source of a ferocious pride I can never know or understand. Boston is a scrappy upstart of a city, a small town in a smaller space with a very big name, a place with a history of fighting hard and refusing to apologize or complain -- except to each other.
For the first few hours after your attack, I was so angry I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking. This morning, I am still angry, angry that you thought you could do this to us. I am also deeply saddened that so many people’s lives -- the casualties stand at three dead and 170 injured as of this moment -- have been irrevocably changed by your actions.
But what I am NOT is afraid of you.
I am tired of being afraid of you. I am having my city back. I am having my mind back. I refuse to put any more energy into fear. I am already waiting for the investigation to be completed and for Boylston Street to be reopened.
When it does, I will go and stand on that once-bloodied sidewalk and say aloud, I am not afraid of you. I will refuse to be.
This morning, the blocks of Boston surrounding the scene of your crime are eerily quiet. The city is like an animal guarding its wounds, but as healing begins and its unflappable confidence returns you will see that you have achieved nothing except to expose your own monstrosity to the world. Three people have died, and an uncertain but staggering number have lost one or both of their legs. Are you proud? Happy? Do you feel accomplished? Is this what you wanted?
As of this writing, the person you are and your motives for this action continue to be a mystery, with the history of this event and its place in our politics as yet unwritten. When this information is slowly revealed, our feelings and our agreed-upon cultural understanding of the event will change, colored by context and processed into something familiar we can grasp, and in so doing we will lose something of the raw emotion of the experience. It will become another story we tell, another national horror in a catalog of national horrors, a thing we remember dimly because to remember it keenly would make it difficult to survive.
But I want to remember how I feel now. I want to remember feeling unafraid, and angry, and like I want to fight what feels like a gross violation of me, my city, my neighbors, and my world.
I always wonder if terrorists ever feel regret. I hope some of you do, because it is difficult for me to conceive of anyone as pure evil, through and through. I hope some part of you is sorry. I hope wherever you are, you are looking at what you have wrought and doubting that you have done a useful or purposeful thing.
I hope you understand, most of all, that you have failed. Because today in Boston there stands a great many people who are not afraid of you, who will go out and live their lives as they always have, and those people will infect others with their confidence, and soon this event will be a terrible memory that reminds us of how strong we are when we work together to rebuild and support one another -- and how weak are those who would try to destroy our spirit.