Lives and innocence have been stolen once again at a major sporting event. In 1972, Israeli Olympic athletes were massacred in Munich. In 1996, a bomb went off at a massive gathering at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. On Monday, the finish line of the most famous marathon in the world turned into a crime scene, with at least three dead and 120 people injured, some critically.
It has not quickly become clear what motivated those who placed bombs near the marathon finish line. What is clear is that the attack struck directly at the deep connection between sports and our common civic life.
As it happens, I’ve run many marathons; I ran Boston last year as a bandit. The marathon is easily our most unifying day of the year — from the anticipation runners feel at the beginning, to the triumph we feel at the end, to the deafening cheering of spectators all along the route.
It is one thing to go to stadiums and arenas to cheer professional and college athletes. The marathon stands alone as a mass celebration of ordinary folks pursuing extraordinary goals, a precious parade of strangers coming together. Every high-five between spectator and runner is a physical bond.
I never thought about it until the explosions on Boylston Street, but the marathon is also a symbol of trust. In no other situation would you accept from the bare hands of a stranger a slice of an orange, loose M&Ms, gummy bears, strawberries, even cups of beer. Whether the berries were ever washed or not, whether the hands were clean or not, I didn’t know or ask. Similarly, in no other situation would spectators even touch — let alone accept hugs from — sweaty, smelly, salty people. Let that bond between strangers not be broken.
I can’t even begin to contemplate the logistical nightmare ahead for future Boston Marathons. It’s conceivable that in the future, the stores, restaurants, and offices on Boylston Street could undergo exhaustive, post-9/11-style security sweeps. But what about other parts of the course where crowds gather, like Wellesley College, Boston College, Cleveland Circle or Coolidge Corner? What about the spectators and the bags and backpacks they carry?
As President Obama said on Monday, Boston is a city of tough people. He noted that this incident happened on Patriots’ Day, the day we celebrate our “free and fiercely independent” spirit.
The attack on the Boston Marathon was an assault on our civic life, our very ability to have fun together. So it is up to all of us to go the distance to make sure the marathon survives, that we cherish the sense of trust and shared triumph that makes this city so extraordinary.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist. As of this writing, three people had died and 176 were injured in the Boston Marathon explosions.