Boston Mercy: Hometown Pride in Hard Times

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Boston nearly since I was born, in the late ’60s, less than a mile from Fenway Park. Two days ago, it swing hard in one direction.

I grew up with busing, Bobby Orr, PBS’s “Zoom,” lovable-rogue-era Whitey Bulger, Channel 56’s “Creature Double Feature,” Red Auerbach’s Celtics, tragic opera’s Red Sox, and the Southeast Expressway’s decade-long Reconstruction Period. And through it all, I loved the Boston Marathon.

In the late-’70s/early-’80s, the race was a mecca to the nation’s running craze, personified by skinny, redhead Bill Rogers, who won it three times in a row from ’78–80, sharing the glory of this last with the awesome spectacle of Rosie Ruiz. She’s still one of my favorite figures from that pre-digital age: taking the T for a good stretch, bursting through a crowd on Commonwealth Avenue, and jumping among front-runners, suspiciously unsweaty, to cross the Boylston Street finish line with the fastest female-runner time in the marathon’s history.

It took over a week for her status change to Most Awesome Fake in Sports History. Like a lo-fi comic version of Lance Armstrong, Ruiz faked running the most watched 26-mile stretch of roadway at a time when neither the road nor the subway bristled with surveillance cameras, which would have picked up the future winner in running shorts, mesh top, and marathon number bib.

I grew up close to dead center of Boston’s class system. My Quincy-born mom smart and college-educated, my Midwest-born dad an MIT grad working then-cool tech company Polaroid. But my sister and I were townies, raised in one of the mostly working class suburbs encircling the Route 128 immortalized in Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner.” Both of us spoke in pungent Masshole accents, which shocked my now-wife when she heard our voices, at 9 and 13, on a tape recording. Two years after making the recording, I transferred to a private school in Boston, a few blocks from the Marathon’s finish line. My first months there, my accent got me humiliated by an upperclassman in the crowded library, and I worked hard to lose it by the end of my first yearnever escaping the sense of betrayal that comes with a move like that.

All this is to say I knew both the city’s enlightened, and those they would enlighten. I heard federal judge W. Arthur Garrity give a lecture at my private school a decade after ordering the desegregation busing that tore up neighborhoods deemed in need of social uplift. I heard family members say the n-word with the same non-rhoticity as ‘90s rappers, but a feeling that retracts my bowels to this day. After high school, I lived in the Bay Area for eight years and in New York for the last 21, and have had hang-ups about where and how I grew up since I first left.

But many of these were resolved when I read a New York Times article about the strong local reaction to the death sentence the federal jury gave Boston Marathon co-bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Back when it happened, as soon as the smoke cleared, my sister said the bomber must be locally born, not a visitor from Pakistan or Syria. A foreigner would have chosen the wrong target, maybe a local center of world banking. But someone who grew up there knew the marathon was one of the few events that brought everybody in that city out, more than most pro sports events, and from every stratum of the city’s amazingly enduring class system. To set shrapnel bombs at the finish line required two things of the bombers: 1) that they be sick fucks; 2) that they knew the city and people well.

Djhokar Tsarnaev certainly did. He graduated from the same Cambridge high school some of my friends attended, and I imagine his brain washing into “religious” terrorist was like those at dysfunctional belief centers in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or Michigan, where despair, alienation, and loneliness get converted into more a palatable state of hateful, self-righteous brotherhood. Djhokar just knew how to hurt his adopted hometown and did.

But I imagine what a nightmare it must have been for him and his confreres to witness the response the city had to the killing and maiming that day. The love people showed each other, all those heedless runs to fallen victims when more explosions seemed likely. The life-affirming gestures generated by the tragedy, the multicolored rainbow of running shoes comprised for a magazine cover, and the number of amputees and other survivors crossing the finish line the next year. All of this happened while the surviving bomber was locked up and, if not for media coverage, easily forgotten.

Djhokar Tsarnaev’s arraignment occurred simultaneously and at the same site as the trial for James Whitey Bulger, who killed more people and did far more to poison Boston’s soul than the foreign-born teenager. Bulger’s trial lasted two months and the jury took six days to convict him of 31 of the 32 counts of racketeering, included murders of 11 victims. On November 14, 2013, he was sentenced to two life terms, plus five years (whatever that means). Bulger also had murder charges in death-penalty states Florida and Oklahoma, but since neither made a move for another trial, he’ll likely remain in Florida’s Coleman II United States Penitentiary for the short remainder of his life.

Tsarnaev’s trial lasted about two months and the jury found him guilty of 30 counts of his indictment. One count, lethal usage of a weapon of mass destruction, was for a homemade bomb whose killing radius was comparable to a soldier’s RPG , and was the federal charge that put the death sentence on the table. Prosecutors cited the youth of the victims, including eight-year-old Martin Richard, as an aggravating factor that supported a death sentence. In an open letter to the justice department, Martin’s parents, Bill and Denise, pleaded for them to remove this sentence from the table.

Whitey Bulger fits every definition of a “homegrown terrorist.” He terrorized people he knew, people he didn’t know, and corrupted law enforcement to its highest levels. He got bumped from the top slot on the FBI’s most wanted list by Osama Bin Laden. But he stood trial on state charges in a state that officially doesn’t believe in murder as a criminal sentenceeven for those who murdered dozens of people. Everything the Tsarnaev brothers did they did in Boston, to Bostonians, and Bostonians were left to decide his fate. Those on this jury, per a Boston lawyer, screened to be “death qualified,” and their first task was to agree that the convicted was an executable 18 years old.

There are logical, amoral reasons for not putting this particular dickhead to death: Prison would remove him from public life and squash dreams of martyrdom, which Timothy McVeigh clearly relished until his very last breath. It would also keep Boston residents from being accessories to homicide, something that got Whitey Bulger a double life sentence (plus five years). But these weren’t the ones cited so often in The New York Times’s man-on-the-street report.

Records manager Scott Larson, 47: “I was shocked. The death penaltyfor Boston.” Dorchester schoolteacher Priscilla Winter, 56: “Martin Richard’s parents didn’t believe it was right, so how is anyone else supposed to?” Building lead-paint remover Liam Larkin, 57: “It was horrendous what he did; it really was. But I don’t agree with the death penalty. …I’d say send him to Supermax…. More fitting than this.” BC High alum Neil Maher, 66: “They ought to demonstrate a little humanity. Killing a teenager’s not going to do anything. I think it’s just a kind of visceral revenge. I think that in three years, the people of Boston and the people on the jury will feel bad about this decision.”

These are the less logical, more moral reasons, and the people who gave them didn’t need any help to see the light. A CBS poll found that sixty-percent of America wants to see Tsarnaev killed. In Boston, it was 15-percent. Hearing so many of its residents share the same sentiment with so little doubt, made me prouder of the city than I’ve been my whole life.