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The Meaning of 'Boston Strong'

By J. Gram Slattery

In the aftermath of the Marathon Bombings last year, commentators, politicians and regular Bostonians were quick to paint a portrait of a gruff, gritty, no-nonsense town.

“Tough and resilient,” was how President Obama described the Hub on the day of the attack, claiming it would “move forward as one proud city.” At an interfaith Seder the following day, Governor Deval L. Patrick ’78 repeated the “proud” descriptor. And at the same service, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino—in his gravelly, garbled, yet convictional voice—shouted, “No challenge, nothing, can tear down the heart of this city and its people.”

On the Internet, the same message proliferated, though the rhetoric was rougher. A meme with Boston’s four major sports mascots and the words, “You fucked with the wrong city,” went viral on Facebook. The now omnipresent “Boston Strong” phrase quickly became commonplace, often transposed on stills from The Boondock Saints”—the most violent, brutal film of the Beantown crime canon. Even the mainstream media took up the tough town narrative: An editorial in the Guardian referred to Boston’s “resilience,” and the Christian Science Monitor described the city as “gruff and stoic” on the bombing’s anniversary.

This narrative is to be expected to some degree: No politician or pundit would call a city soft in the face of a terror attack, regardless of how it responded.

But that’s not the only reason this flinty narrative emerged. Rather, it was also reflective of Boston’s peculiar self-identity, one rooted in its tumultuous, at times violent, past. It’s a city, the narrative goes, of ethnically proud Irishmen and Italians—historically resistant to change, and historically resistant to each other. It’s a city of tough, provincial neighborhoods—Southie, Eastie, Charlestown—all tight-knit and all working class. It’s a city where people drink beer, not wine, where the winters are harsh, and where the brother of a mass murderer can rise to the top of the state senate.

Of course, some of this Boston is a relic of the past, even if we don’t want to admit it. Whitey Bulger is feeble and imprisoned, and the Winter Hill Gang is dead. Most of us won’t be able to afford a decent place in South Boston when we graduate, much less the trendy Charlestown.

Yet, I’d contend that there remains a gruff, no-nonsense vibe to the place even if the conditions that bred this vibe are drifting into the past. As hometown writer Dennis Lehane wrote in the New York Times last year, “Bostonians don’t love easy things, they love hard things—blizzards, the bleachers in Fenway Park, a good brawl over a contested parking space.” We’re not quick to abandon tradition, and we rarely let passion overpower reason. And if we’re not stoic, there’s at least a frank Yankee pragmatism that guides the city and its residents—often interpreted as rudeness by outsiders.

It’s because of my qualified belief in this self-image that I was surprised by how Boston, as a political community, reacted in the days following the bombing. For when I found myself sequestered in my dorm in Cambridge while the police shut down an entire metro area in pursuit of two villains, I felt anything but resilient or tough or pragmatic.

Rather, I felt irrational, and, in fact, a bit lame.

To be sure, what Dhzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev did last April was beyond heinous. They took away both human life and a day of civic pride, and enjoyed doing so. But it was us that gave them two days of public fear and cowering of the kind that that two sadistic thugs might envision, hope for, and relish. Watertown, Somerville, Medford, Cambridge, and much of Boston huddled inside, peering sheepishly out windows for 48 hours. Driving from A to B was considered foolhardy, as if the danger from these two amateur criminals had turned Boston into Kabul. I was admonished for leaving my dorm in the morning, and was forced to curtail a trip to Connecticut, as if leaving Cambridge were a 3:10-to-Yuma-like feat. In other words, for two days, we, as a city, acquiesced to a pair of murderers.

I’d understand it all if these tactics were an effective strategy for rounding up the brothers. But in the law enforcement hero worship that has followed the bombings, we forget the narrative of the Tsarnaevs’ capture: The police, after riddling a Watertown neighborhood with bullets and killing Tamerlan, cordoned off a 20-block area, shut down half a metro and found nothing. Only when civilians were allowed to come out of their homes was Dhzokhar spotted—by a man looking inside his boat in his backyard. A police helicopter brought out an infrared detector, and iconic images of the culprit being cuffed were circulated. But neither of the suspects were subdued during the curfew, and it was not the FBI or HUPD or BPD or CPD that found Tamerlan, but one of Metro Boston’s 4.5 million decent-hearted civilians.

This isn’t to say that the police didn’t exhibit bravery; they did. But it is to say that we needn’t cower in the wake of terror, even when we lack badges. We’re all brave, and we’re all too pragmatic and all too tough to let our lives be controlled by two deranged criminals.

At least that’s my understanding of what it means to be “Boston Strong.”

J. Gram Slattery ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.

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