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Thursday, April 21, 2022

April 21, 2022: Boston Marathon Studying: The Bombing

[On April 19th, 1897, the first Boston Marathon was run. So for the 125th anniversary of this iconic road race, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Marathon histories and contexts, leading up to a special Guest Post from my favorite RunningStudier!]

[Re-sharing this December 2013 post on the Boston Marathon Bombing, because I would still say very much the same things.]

On a couple ways to AmericanStudy an event that’s still understandably raw and delicate.

A former Fitchburg State University student was good friends with one of the four people killed in April’s bombing of the Boston Marathon finish line (both were Chinese exchange students). One of my FSU colleagues was near the finish line with her young son and was profoundly impacted by the experience.  And as a resident of Waltham, I was required to stay in my home throughout the lockdown later that week, as police searched neighboring Watertown for the surviving second bomber and brother.  All of which is to say, I know full well how much the bombing and its aftermaths affected our local communities (as well as the nation and world), and I’m well aware that even eight months later it might feel too soon to analyze and AmericanStudy the event.

But on the other hand, I’d say that’s part—if a delicate and challenging part—of the job of a public AmericanStudies scholar, to try to provide contexts and frames for even our most raw and painful moments. One such context that has interested me ever since that fateful day in April has been the question of how we remember such events, and more exactly of why we remember some tragedies far more than others. For example, two days after the Marathon bombing, a fertilizer plant in West, Texas exploded, killing 15 people and seriously injuring more than 160 others (totals higher than the bombing’s effects). Yet while the explosion received some attention in its immediate moment, it has gone virtually unremembered on the national level since, and certainly has not occupied the continual place in our conversations that the bombing has. Of course, the bombing was a premeditated and violent act, not an accident—but the Texas explosion has its own complex and controversial histories and contexts. So why do we remember murder or terrorism so much more strongly than other tragedies? A complicated, but important, AmericanStudies question for sure.

Even more complicated and delicate, but just as important, are questions about the narratives we have constructed and continue to construct of the young bombers. I’m not looking to wade into Rolling Stone territory here—that’s been done, and done, and done. But here’s a moment that stood out to me, as I followed the media coverage during my locked-down day: George Stephanopoulos was interviewing a high school class of the surviving bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and he asked her the following pair of questions: “Did he speak with an accent? Or was he Americanized?”  I’ve written before about the equation of “American” with “English-speaking,” but this moment took that equation one step further, defining an accident (a foreign one, presumably—not a Southern or Boston accent, to be sure!) as similarly outside of the definition of “Americanized.” There would be many, many ways to push back on such a narrative—which might be relatively rare in our national community, but also might not be—but perhaps the simplest would be this: it’s quite likely that most, if not all, of the Founding Fathers spoke with a British accent. So however we define “American,” accents seem utterly inseparable from it.

Last Marathon split tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Boston Marathon histories or stories you’d highlight?

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