Guilt, Relief, and Everything Else

by E.B. Bartels

Post originally appeared on Wellesley Underground on April 20, 2013.

I found out that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been surrounded and subsequently captured, alive, last night while watching Pitch Perfect in my Manhattan apartment with my roommate. I had spent almost the entirety of the day glued to MSNBC, CNN, Boston.com, and Twitter – graduate school reading piled untouched at my feet – and had only taken a break to walk along the Hudson in the late afternoon and then to watch the movie with my roommate. As Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson sang for their lives in the final climactic scene of the movie, my cellphone vibrated with texts from my mom and friends. As soon as the movie ended, I flipped on the news and felt my heart swell at the sound of Mayor Menino’s mumbles. I felt pride, love, and relief. I felt oddly upset I had missed the moment of capture itself, after following the news all day. I felt disturbed that Tsarnaev is only 19 years old, and that he had been found, bleeding and hiding in a boat. I also felt lonely in New York, wishing I was at home, drinking a million Sam Adams in a Southie bar and hugging my Boston family and friends.

These are just a few of the feelings I have experienced since the two bombs went off on Monday afternoon at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. There have been more feelings in the air than have names. There was fear, of course, and disbelief and panic and shock. There was grief, of course, and sadness and anger and confusion. There was patriotism, of course, and camaraderie and resilience and calm. There were also endless combinations of these, and even more complicated, convoluted emotions that could not be expressed in words. The overarching feeling right now though is, thankfully, relief, after the marvelous work of the law enforcement officials statewide. It’s still too soon to know many things – if Tsarnaev will survive his debilitating injuries, if there are more bombs, if this is part of a larger terrorist network, hell, we don’t even have confirmation yet if Tsarnaev is the right guy (remember that whole innocent-until-proven-guilty thing we’re so proud of?) – but at least in this moment we can breath a little more freely. But even so, there is another feeling creeping in under it all: guilt.

Growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts, for a long time for me the third Monday of April had been more about minutemen than runners. I would wake up in the dark to walk to Lexington center with my dad, where we watched adults in 18th century clothing play-fight on the town green. The smell of gun powder and wet grass were the smells I associated with the day, and even on the years that I didn’t feel like getting up early, the sounds of muskets and cannons woke me up anyway. In high school, I made friends who had grown up outside of Paul Revere’s territory. While I still enjoyed heckling Red Coats with childhood friends at the Concord parade, I learned about the greatness of the Boston Marathon. A close friend had grown up on the Marathon route in a house at the top of Heartbreak Hill and she had been handing out orange slices to runners since she was in the womb.

Only when I became a first year at Wellesley College, though, did Marathon Monday become my day. Fellow 2010 alumna, Makkah Ali, wrote an incredible piece that captures the spirit of Marathon Monday on the Wellesley campus. It’s a beautiful day to connect with friends and strangers alike, a day that moves even the most stone-cold-non-criers (such as myself) to tears at so many humans trying to achieve something incredible, a day to drink beer in the sunshine and scream and cheer and kiss and be so damn happy to be alive. I was at Wellesley for three marathons, and the day I felt the most homesick for Boston while living abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, was April 20, 2009. The year after I graduated, I was inspired to run from Hopkinton to Wellesley with Allison Broadwater, ’09, and this year, when Liz Good, ’09, was training to run all 26.2 miles, I said, yes, of course I would blow off a day of my grad school classes and come up from New York to run the Newton Hills with her.

For all of this personal history, the events of Monday, literally, struck close to home. When I returned to New York late on Tuesday night, my roommate, who had also grown up in the Boston area, had waited up for me. We talked, and she, too, was shaken up as I recounted my luck that Liz had been running slowly, so we were only at mile 19 when the bombs went off. But my roommate, who has a Masters in International Relations and keeps Al Jazeera as her web browser’s homepage, reminded me that in the scheme of things, three dead and over a hundred injured is not so bad. This is, sadly, very true. I thought of Glenn Greenwald’s article on The Guardian that mentioned how on Monday, in Iraq, a series of car bombs killed 42 and injured more than 250. An event that already would have gotten minimal press coverage got almost none, since the whole world was standing with Boston instead.

This is when the guilt began. It makes me sick that the “Marathon Mondays” happening every day in Syria and Iraq, amongst other places, do not get the kind of attention and care that the bombings in Boston did. No one, ever, in an ideal world, should have to feel unsafe in the place they call their home. I can only hope that because so many Bostonians felt what it was like to have such a horrific event in their own city, that perhaps they will feel more empathy for the events in other countries and bring them the attention and support they deserve. We are a city of cowering liberals without guns, right, Nate Bell? But, unfortunately, that probably won’t happen. Boston residents will go back to school and work and daily trips to Dunkin’ Donuts and the violence and terror will fade from their minds, because, it’s hard to care about places to which you are not connected. It’s awful, and as a “diehard liberal communist” (my grandfather’s description of me), I know I should say otherwise, but I think it is human nature.

Yesterday, as I tried to work on a research paper for class, in between refreshing the news headlines, I GChatted with a grad school friend. What are you up to today, she asked, what’s going on. I was startled that anyone could be having an average, normal Friday with the ongoing lockdown and manhunt in Boston. I explained the headlines to her, and how I was in a news black hole, and she expressed her sympathies, saying she wanted to give all of Boston a “big hug.” But then she went back to work. She is from Seattle. She lives in New York. She’s never been to Boston. It’s not her place, and so even as much as she tries to care, it’s not the same as when it happens on your own turf. In 2010, when multiple bombings ravaged the Moscow subway system, I was a wreck. I had spent over a year living in Russia in college, including a month-long course in Moscow, and as I saw images of bleeding civilians in the very Metro stops I had frequented regularly, I wrote frantically to Russian friends to ensure their safety and tried to make sense of the violence. However, to my friends who had never been to Russia, Moscow was just a faraway place, full of vodka and snow, where everything took place in sepia-tone. Not their place. Not their home.

I have spent all but two years of my life living in or around the Boston area. I was just down the street from the explosion. I have so many people that I care about who live within a 20-mile radius of the Marathon finish line. As much as my academic, liberal, pacifist, democrat brain wishes it were otherwise, I can’t help feeling more intensely about Marathon Monday than an Iraq car bombing. I hate that about myself, and I will try my hardest to do otherwise, but it is human nature, and until, one day, I get to visit the Middle East myself and feel a personal connection to the place, it will be hard to break that instinct.

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