On the Boston Bombings

Yesterday morning, I published a post entitled “Liberty, Freedom, and nGrams! (A Patriots’ Day Special)” in which I explained that, though I try to limit my postings on this site to one a week, I’ve made exceptions to the rule: once to discuss some issues that had arisen regarding the Vienna Philharmonic’s dealings with its past (a topic on which I’ve written) and once again on the holiday popularly known as “Presidents’ Day” — when I offered a few thoughts on Thomas Jefferson as an Epicurean and John Quincy Adams’ translation of Friedrich von Gentz’s book on the American Revolution.

Since yesterday was “Patriots’ Day” — a holiday unique to Massachusetts and Maine — I used the holiday as an excuse for two posts: one tracing usages of the terms “freedom” and “liberty,” the other on the eighteenth-century “Patriot Printers” Benjamin Edes and John Gill. Yesterday was a beautiful April day in the Boston area (so, for that matter, is today), so I headed out for a long walk. When I arrived home around four in the afternoon, I learned of the bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Since my first post made passing mention of the Marathon (I’d suggested, tongue in cheek, that it was a contributing factor in preventing the commercialization of the holiday, since it makes it impossible for those of us who live here to cross Commonwealth Avenue for most of the day), I decided to take it, along with the other post, down.

This is a research blog that deals with “the Enlightenment as an historical period and continuing project.” While the events in downtown Boston today have little to do with the Enlightenment as an historical period, they are not without relevance for what I take to be the legacy that period has left us. My discussion of Edes and Gill, in a small way, had something to say about that legacy, so I thought that it might not be inappropriate to make it available again, with a brief preface. The situation with my discussion of “freedom” and “liberty” — which this post replaces — was somwhat more complicated: its main focus had to do with the difficulty in trying to pin down shifts in the usage of the terms “liberty” and “freedom” and was provoked in part by the opportunistic misuse of the latter term in American politics over the last decade or so. I think I can do it better if I drop the nGrams and simply say a few things about the Boston Marathon, about Patriots’ Day, and about the particular spot in the Boston where the first bomb exploded.

Johnny Kelly and the Boston Marathon

I live in Newton, a suburb outside the Boston city limits. The Marathon runs down Commonwealth Avenue, about a half mile from my house. I’ve spent a fair number of Patriots’ Days watching the stream of runners and wheelchair athletes as they begin their ascent up “Heartbreak Hill,” the last big climb before the long downhill stretch that leads down into Boston.

Newton is home to a statue honoring Johnny Kelly, who competed in 61 Boston Marathons, won two of them, placed second in 7, and finished in the top ten 18 times. He ran his final Marathon at the age of 84. In the last years of his life (he died in 2004 at the age of 97) he ran the last part of the race (about six miles or so — more than I can comfortably run), starting at the statue that had been erected to honor him, a statue that shows the young and the old Kelly running together, hands uplifted. The crowds that lined the way would always recognize him and cheer him on, as did his fellow runners.DSCF9420

Kelly was not a professional athlete and, until he retired at the age of 73, he continued to work as a maintenance man for Boston Edison. For much of the last century, the Boston Marathon was not an event for professional athletes, mainly because there weren’t such things as “professional runners.” It was a public event, open to anyone up to the challenge of running 26 miles. Even after it began to attract all the remarkable runners from other parts of the world who I’ve seen from my favored vantage point (for example, Uta Pippig), it remained — like most other marathons, I suppose — a competition that was open to the public. Yesterday’s bombs exploded well after the “elite” runners had finished the competition, which meant that those who were crossing the finish line and those who were gathered on the sidewalk to see them, were mostly amateur runners and their families, many from the Boston area.

What took place yesterday afternoon, then, was an attack both on the people who assembled to watch the end of the race in downtown Boston and on that strange but essential entity that we call “the public.” The reports in today’s newspapers have been explicit in describing what was only hinted at yesterday in the televised reports: many people have suffered horrible injuries as a result of bombs that, by accident or design, were positioned in a way that made them terribly effective at blowing off legs.

I stopped following the Twitter feed on the bombing after reading a tweet from a woman who — apparently having speculated in an earlier tweet that President Obama would, “once again,” fail to call this a “terrorist attack” — was outraged that, in his comments on the attacks, he failed to deploy the shibboleth for which she had been waiting. The public is under attack in a variety of different ways and we can leave it for a calmer moment to draw the subtle distinctions between someone walking into an elementary school with the sort of weaponry used by armies and slaughtering students and others placing the sorts of explosive devices used by other armies along a street filled with families watching a public event. Acts of both sorts strike at the heart of what republics require: public spaces where citizens can go about their lives. Yesterday evening, Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis requested that people remain indoors, not congregate in large groups, and stay away from the immediate area of the bombings. In the short run, this is a reasonable request: the police have a crime scene to investigate. In the longer run, of course, it is the sort of request that is antithetical to what it means to be a citizen of a republic. But the fact that public officials are describing the area of the attack as a “crime scene” and that the use of “war zone” seems, thus far, to be limited to certain parts of the press is somewhat encouraging.

Patriots’ Day

I like Patriots’ Day quite a bit. In part, this has to do with local pride: it’s a holiday that is only celebrated by those of us who live in Massachusetts and Maine (a state that, long ago, was a part of Massachusetts). Prior to becoming a moveable holiday (it is now celebrated on the third Monday in April) it was observed on April 19, the anniversary of the battles at Lexington and Concord that began the American war of independence. I’ve been to Concord many times and like to take foreign visitors there. They are usually somewhat puzzled, especially when I insist on dragging them to the shabby building that housed the “Concord School of Philosophy” — a place where American Hegelians assembled in the nineteenth century. But they, like everybody else, seem to enjoy Walden Pond.

Sadly, over the last several decades, the holiday has been burdened with other associations. I was vacationing with my family in Florence on April 19, 1995, the date of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. I watched the scenes of the destruction on CNN with incomprehension and followed, with even greater incomprehension, the subsequent reporting on the militia groups from which the bomber had come. A few days later I was in the Sala della Pace of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena gazing at the Lorenzetti frescoes. In 1995, “freedom” had not quite yet become what it would become in the wake of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center: a verbal tick, uttered by politicians in defense of increasingly questionable (but, unfortunately, not sufficiently questioned) ventures — a word intended to mark the true “patriots” off from the suspect parts of the population. But even then I was developing a preference for the Latin word that I saw on the shield on the balcony of the Palazzo and would see again, a few days later, on the walls of Lucca: Libertas.  It is a word that has always struck me as more complex in its implications than the word “freedom.”

768px-Ambrogio_Lorenzetti_-_Allegory_of_the_Good_Government_(detail)_-_WGA13487Among the lessons taught on the walls of the Sala della Pace is that the preservation of  liberty requires such things as concord, peace, fortitude, prudence, magnanimity, temperance, justice — especially justice (the inscription reads “Love Justice you who rule the earth”). At this hour, we do not know whether the bombings on Boylston Street were carried out by domestic or foreign enemies. But we should know by now that the only way in which republics can effectively respond to challenges like this is to call upon all of the capacities allegorized on the walls of the Sala della Pace. While the twittering woman was outraged (or feigning outrage — on Twitter there may not be a difference) that President Obama didn’t utter the word “terrorism,” I was gratified that he characterized Boston as “tough and resilient” — words that translate well into Latin as “fortitudo.” The reports in today’s newspapers also point to a considerable outpouring of magnanimity on the part of those who, in large and small ways, came to the aid of those whose live were disrupted, in ways minor and massive, by yesterday’s events. And the fact that the American war for independence began in a town called “Concord” ought to be enough to remind us that in a properly functioning republic citizens don’t need to be forever at the ready to topple their government.  They can put down their muskets, take up their pens, and make good use of the liberties that republics provide.

“The Safeguard of Order and Liberty”

A few years ago it struck me that, though I teach at Boston University, I wasn’t spending nearly enough time walking around the city of Boston itself.  I resolved that, rather than boarding the subway near my office for the ride back to Newton, I would instead walk the mile and a half into the city itself and get on the subway at the Copley Square stop, which stands across the street from the Boston Public Library. I subsequently realized that, though I was walking past the Boston Public Library quite a bit, I wasn’t spending nearly enough time in its g220px-Bates_Hall_Bostonorgeous main reading room. So, whenever I had an hour to spare, I went into the building and did my reading in the great vaulted hall. The first of yesterday’s bombs went off across from the new wing of the Library and, for the moment, the Copley Square station is closed as the investigation of the crime scene continues.

In the face of the pain and suffering that those most directly affected by the attacks have endured and will be enduring in the days to come it may be pointless to talk about walks in cities and reading rooms in libraries. An eight-year old child was the first confirmed death in the attacks and reports of the carnage filled the morning papers.  Families of children killed in the Sandy Hook shootings were among those on the stands erected at the finish and the streets across from the library were stained with the blood of the victims.

But there are two inscriptions on the outside of the library that strike me as worth recalling in the midst of these horrors. The first was composed by the board of trustees when they established what would be the first American public library: “The Commonwealth Requires the Education of the People as the Safeguard of Order and Liberty.” It might serve as a reminder that the things we need to do in order to protect the republic involve more than simply maintaining “homeland security.”  The other inscription, shorter and more direct, is on the keystone of the entrance. It speaks for itself: “Free to All.”

The doors of the Boston Public Library are, for obvious reasons, closed today.  But we can be certain that they will not remain closed.  And there is some comfort in that.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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