Probably wearing an oversized baseball cap and a big, sloppy grin, at three years old I stepped onto a characteristically purple and yellow car on the Old Colony Line Railroad with my father. The line extends from Boston down to Kingston, my hometown, and Plymouth, where the rock is, both about an hour away from the city. After decades out of service, the line had just been rebuilt, thanks in part to the concrete my dad poured.
Over the next decade, my father and I spent a lot of time in Boston. I quickly memorized the train stops between Kingston and Boston and would practice reciting them on the hour-long train ride. Dad grew up in Dorchester, a neighborhood on the southern edge of Boston, and even though we lived in a quiet, suburban, middle-class town far from the city, he wanted me to have at least a taste of the experience he had growing up in the city. So when we went into the city, it usually wasn’t to go the Children’s Museum or take a tour of Fenway Park (though we did those things). Rather, it was to walk around the different neighborhoods like the North End, where we ate good food and waved hello to the old Italian men, puffing their cigars as they lounged in old chairs outside the many little cafes.
So when I walked into Frist on April 15th and saw everyone crowded around the TV watching the news about the Boston Marathon bombing, I saw my hometown under siege. Sure, I grew up in Kingston, and my literal home and everyone I knew was perfectly safe, but the blasts on Monday and subsequent shootout in Watertown later in the week pierced my heart. They attacked my home. They bombed the city that raised me.
Throughout the week, especially on Thursday night when I realized the tragedy wasn’t over yet, memories of my city flashed through my mind. My father and I have a decade of experiences in the city, from those days when we just walked around to the evening we went to my first Celtics game and spent at least a half hour trying to find the car in the Government Center Parking garage afterwards.
On an unusually warm day in late October back in 2004, my mother took the day off from work and told me I didn’t have to go to school so we could go into the city after the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918. I loved the Red Sox more than anything—my whole family did, all the way up to my grandmother, who sat next to the record player in her old house every night and watched the Sox on TV. My mother and I stood in front of the State House, with its gold dome glistening in the autumn sun, and heard the Dropkick Murphys, a rowdy, Irish band while a few Sox Players were recognized for giving an entire city a reason to raise their glasses of Sam Adams Boston Lager.
As I grew older, the memories changed, and naturally I started spending more time with my friends in the city. The first time I got drunk was on Boston Harbor, looking out as the fireworks shot up in celebration of 2011. Sometimes on the weekends during my senior year of high school, my best friend and I occasionally spent Saturday afternoon at Suffolk Downs, Boston’s dumpy horse racing track.
Because I went to a private school just south of the city, my friends were from all over. Boston was equidistant from all of us and easy to access without a car. In the few months before college when we wanted to drink covertly, we mixed some vodka from our parents’ liquor cabinets with some orange juice we bought at the 7-11 in the Transportation Building and sat on Boston Common before walking down to the South Street Diner. When we wanted a coffee shop open late, we always sat at the Thinking Cup on Tremont Street and sipped overpriced lattés while we talked about books because that is what we thought young people were supposed to do.
My memories in Boston form a time capsule of my childhood and adolescence. But even as I grow older, I will always be drawn to the peculiar culture of my home. Yes, it is a city deeply rooted in Irish Catholicism. Dorchester, where my father grew up, and South Boston (or “Southie”), have always been home to working-class, Irish Catholic families. The neighborhoods are much more diverse now than they were 40 years ago, but it still isn’t hard to find a pub with an incredibly Irish name like “McNulty’s” in either of these neighborhoods.
But on the other side, it is a city covered in red brick. The Freedom Trail, a red line painted on the streets leading tourists around the city to different historical sites from the beginning of the Revolution, takes you to many different brick, distinctly old-world Protestant buildings. And Boston is home to the old-money, New England families with names like Lodge, Peabody, and Forbes.
It’s a peculiar culture, but it’s one that raised me. I went to a New England prep school—I got my fair share of WASP culture—but I at least hope that I’ve held on to the working class, Irish-Catholic, no bullshit values of hard work, dedication, and loyalty that keep us cheering for the Red Sox even when they lose and running towards the site of a crime or accident to assist.
So when I saw the news, I felt like this childhood, this culture was under attack. The initial bombs went off less than a mile from almost every memory I mentioned above. The chaos in Watertown on Thursday night happened one town over from Cambridge, home to Harvard Square where I used to go after a trip to Suffolk Downs to get a burger at Charlie’s Kitchen. These men were shooting up the place that raised me, the place that holds my fondest memories. My city was falling apart, and as I watched the saga unfold for the week, I thought about my city and remembered all that it gave to me.
But of course we were Boston strong—we caught the attackers, and we shut down the whole city to make sure we could do it. Many said, “They messed with the wrong city,” and that’s true: they did. What happened in Boston last week was undoubtedly a tragedy, and I can’t imagine how the victims’ families feel.
With that said, as I moved past the visceral, emotional reaction to what I saw on TV and heard over the Boston Police Scanner on Thursday night, I’m troubled. I’m troubled by our reaction to the tragedy, but I think it gives us a chance to look at our nation and ourselves and improve.
First, there was a rush to blame Muslims even before we had any evidence. The Twitter-verse exploded with comments blaming Muslims for the attack before we even knew anything. The New York Post reported incorrectly that there was a Saudi suspect.
The terrorists were Muslim, but jumping to that conclusion simply represents a disgusting adherence to stereotypes based on isolated bits of evidence. Islam is a peaceful religion. Sadly, the attacks reinforce the stereotype of the inherent association of Islam and violence. This attitude towards Muslims is evident throughout the country, especially in response to proposed mosques. Remember the protest against the Ground Zero Mosque a couple of years ago? If we didn’t falsely and automatically associate Islam and violence, and more specifically, if we didn’t falsely associate 9/11 with Islam rather than with terrorism, we wouldn’t have had these ignorant protests.
Zooming out even further, I’m troubled by the nature of America’s sensitivity to violence. Yes, Boston was a tragedy, and you can see how so many of us reacted to the violence and death. I felt personally attacked because they were shooting up my city, and I have the utmost sympathy for the victims and their families. We unequivocally have the right to be sensitive to violence on our shores, especially given how rare it is. We have always been this way, especially since 9/11. But we need to extend this sensitivity beyond our borders and let it affect our policy decisions.
But we cannot forget that things like this happen around the world every day, often at the hands of our nation. Estimates vary on how many civilian deaths have been caused by U.S. drone attacks, but some estimates exceed 400. Many have cited the U.S. presence in the Middle East as the main motivator of terrorism against the U.S. If we want the violence on our own shores to end, we need fundamental changes in U.S. foreign policy. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we can’t kill all the terrorists in the world—a more moderate foreign policy that avoids a military presence that motivates terrorism would serve us best.
Similarly, the reaction to violence in this country is disproportionate and self-centered. 9/11 and Boston were both tragedies. While coverage of U.S. drone attacks is significant, we don’t hear much about the civilian death tolls in the wars we’ve started. The civilian death toll in Iraq is likely over 110,000; roughly 3,000 Americans died during 9/11. The gap between those two numbers is immense, and I’m not asserting that 9/11 wasn’t a tragedy. But if we are going to react so viscerally when violence happens on our own shores, we need to start paying attention to what’s happening around the world, particularly at our hand in the Middle East. If we are going to be so upset about Boston, we should be upset about what our country is doing too.
In early September 2001, my father and I walked Boston’s freedom trail in its entirety—it’s only two and a half miles, but that’s not a short walk for a seven-year-old. A few days later, two planes collided into the Twin Towers. My walk along the freedom trail was my last walk as an innocent young boy in a seemingly perfect country. After 9/11, our foreign policy went south, and our economy soon followed. Independent of these events, I started to grow up.
I grew up in Boston. When my city came under attack, it hurt like hell, and the memories I present here all flashed through my mind as the drama unfolded. But then I remember that memories like these flash through the minds of Syrian mothers when their sons die fighting against a tyrannical government or Pakistani sons as their mothers are accidentally killed by a U.S. drone. We should continue to mourn what happened in Boston. But to prevent it from happening again, or at the very least, to take the high road in response, it’s time we make policy changes that reflect the sensitivity to violence we’ve shown over the past two weeks.