Everyone processes tragedy in their own way. This is as it should be. Throughout much of the day on Monday, after news of the bombing at the Boston Marathon hit, I shook in fear as details emerged, suppressing the urge to break down into tears as I anticipated news of friends being caught in the blast and learned more about the strangers who had. But as the day wore on, I began to revert to my instinctual means of processing the news: skepticism at extravagant shows of sentimentality. It’s a peculiarly Boston trait, this simultaneous pride in my city and the instinct to cringe whenever someone else expresses pride in it, and it made my feelings about this tragedy all the more complicated. Watching Boston begin to assert itself as “Boston,” I felt a comforting sense of solidarity transform into an uncomfortable sense of embarrassment.
No one can quibble with the celebration of the heroes who emerge from an event like this. People who ran into the chaos, risking their own lives in the confusion, are rightfully portrayed as symbols of all that is good in the world. We saw such celebration in Patton Oswalt’s reminder that there are more good people than bad ones, and in stories about Carlos Arredondo, the cowboy-hatted hero. So far so good. But soon thereafter the coverage of the tragedy took on a stranger tone, as if this was first and foremost an opportunity to champion the flinty New England spirit.
Nearly every official who spoke after the Boston Marathon bombings, including President Obama, Gov. Patrick, and Mayor Menino, asserted Boston’s status as—in the president’s words—“a tough and resilient town.” I’m proud that I grew up in Boston, but these expressions of Boston’s exceptionalism quickly went from inspirational to sometimes cringe-worthy. Sure Boston is tough and resilient, but opposed to where? Is there any city that we wouldn’t say as much about in the wake of something like this? “Naturally, Topeka is a city of wimps, so …”
Nowhere was this more awe-inspiringly daft than in the sports-mascot meme that began to spread throughout local social media. “You fucked with the wrong city,” read the text, imposed over the Red Sox’s, Patriots’, Bruins’, and Celtics’ fictional avatars. Which would have been the right city, then?
This line of thinking cropped up more and more frequently as the night wore on. This is Boston! Now we’re about to show you what we’re made of. What does that mean? Are we sending a team of our most drunken, sports-crazed townies over to—where exactly?—to find the people responsible? Are we going to settle this terrorist attack with a fistfight outside The Fours? “Clearly … someone forgot what happened the last time evil showed its face in Boston” read another meme friends have been posting over an image of two icons of Boston cinema’s trademark roguish Irish outlaws. I can’t decide if that’s more or less infantile to think the fictional characters from The Boondock Saints are going to materialize to fight terror than to post pictures of Charlie Brown and Snoopy offering Boston a hug. Elsewhere, Today trotted out “Boston” prop Mike Barnicle to explain how owah tragedies ahh moar powerful than yowahs. “This was as if someone came into your living room and attacked you in your home,’’ the longtime Boston newsman said. “That’s the feeling, that’s the sense of the crowd. This was an attack on family.”
Some of the support from outside the city was even worse. One particularly parasitic example came from page-view profiteers BuzzFeed, whose list of 29 Reasons to Love Boston (subhead: “Wicked awesome”; sample entry: the Citgo sign) explained to the world that we’re a city that has things to do and look at. Thanks for the reminder. One of those things we’re known for here is Dunkin’ Donuts, which, somehow, inexplicably, showed up in numerous expressions of defiant pride. What does a fast-food and coffee chain have to do with how Boston specifically reacts to a terrorist attack? It’s like people were just listing off things that they associate with Boston in order to … well, I don’t really know what the motivation behind that is. I’m not sure what the missing steps are between watching videos of people rush to the aid of bombing victims and pledging your allegiance to a specific brand of iced coffee.
Others made passing gestures at solidarity, like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Chicago Tribune, by reducing the city to its sports fandom. That seemed cynical to me, like the IRL version of this Onion article. We’re not an uncle you have nothing in common with at a family party, we’re an entire city—we have more to talk about with each other than sports. Of course, we Bostonians aren’t helping matters with our own conflation of athletic achievement and civic character. (And I will begrudgingly admit that this gesture from the Yankees did momentarily lower my guard.) I’m also getting press releases this morning from local businesses touting their intended charitable efforts. One newly minted New England Patriot pledged to donate money for every catch he makes this season. So a millionaire will donate a few thousand dollars sometime next year? That’s more substantive than changing your Facebook avatar to I <3 Boston, but whether it’s intentional or not, it’s essentially grief showmanship.
All of this is just about showing a sense of togetherness, many of my friends have countered when I brought up these misgivings. Can’t you just let people deal with things in their own way? Yes, of course, and I would never dream of slighting someone who has personally suffered from this tragedy. It’s the rest of us I’m worried about. Tribalism isn’t the solution (and sometimes, it’s the problem). How about we stop focusing on how we’re all Bostonians today and remember that we’re all humans. It’s what Tom Brady would want.
Read more on Slate about the Boston Marathon bombing.