When I learned of the two explosions that rocked the Boston Marathon my first thought was that it was another electrical fire, like the one last year, that blackened the neighborhood and permeated the deserted streets with noxious fumes. I never thought of bombs; I never thought of acts of terror, this accusatory and amorphous allegation that (in my mind) is too commonly spoken these days. As news from my hometown inundated my iPhone, the truth became depressingly clear. Boston was bombed at the heart of the city, at an event that had long brought my city together, among ourselves as we celebrated this country’s oldest marathon and with the rest of the world who had traveled to my city to run it.
I felt so bewildered to be half a world away in Berkeley. As my classes continued and my classmates went about their daily lives, my mind was back in Boston’s Back Bay. Two bombs had exploded near the Public Library, where I would secretly steal away to study in high school, only blocks away from the apartment where I was born and lived for the first three years of my life. I walked around Berkeley in a daze of perplexity and longing, remembering only last year how I purposely walked down Boylston Avenue burrowed into jacket to hide from the windy cold. I recalled bringing my out-of-town friends to nearby Newbury Street to stroll beside the old-world brownstones while we window shopped and later walked back to Cambridge across the Massachusetts Avenue bridge, the beautiful Boston skyline at our back and my university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, out before us.
Over the coming days, I could not get Boston out of my mind. I could not focus on my city planning readings from the other side of the world when my heart was back in my hometown. I could not struggle through their opaque language when I struggled for even a simple explanation of why I was so distraught. I did not know any of the victims of the bombing. My best friend was there, and because she is a reporter for National Public Radio her voice echoed in my mind as I listened to news from back home. But staring at the photographs of my city, especially of those who lost their lives and limbs because of this act of violence (senseless, as violence almost always is), I dwelt amid my own grief and fury.
All week I had been receiving emergency text messages from MIT about suspicious packages around campus, daily reminders that those I was thinking of back home were preoccupied with alert. Then on Thursday evening I received a text message about a shooting outside MIT’s Stata Center, designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, its jagged edges and curves prominent on a campus otherwise defined by industrial architecture. An MIT police officer had been shot. My Facebook feed lit up with updates from my friends and fellow students that they were safe at home or locked in their offices on campus. One inside Stata posted a picture of the police cars outside. I was devastated. My sister is a law enforcement officer, so I thought of her. I was devastated to quickly learn from my MIT friends that the officer had died. I was devastated that only days ago the Senate had failed to pass even the most benign gun control measures. I had NO IDEA that this was connected to the Boston Marathon bombings. It was difficult to sleep that night as my friends in Cambridge and into the suburbs posted stories about hearing gunshots and grenades outside. I listened into Boston’s police dispatcher (live online) but all I could comprehend was confusion.
The next morning things became clear and my world fell apart. The suspects in the shooting of the MIT policeman were the two blurry-faced brothers whose pictures were released the day before. The older one had been killed; the younger one – only 19 – was still hiding. My entire city was in lockdown searching for this kid, this kid from Cambridge who murdered four other young people and maimed dozens of others. I soon learned that he and his brother lived only blocks away from MIT. I had walked by their home countless times as I visited friends in East Cambridge. When I lived on campus we may have even shopped at the same supermarket. I had certainly been to the 7/11 where they had been the night before, before they killed Officer Sean Collier only blocks away. Those streets of East Cambridge are dark and deserted at that time of night. I know from too many late nights on campus studying, too worried about writing my master’s thesis to even think about the work that the MIT police did day in, night out to keep us safe.
I could not tear myself away from the news that day as my city was locked down in search of this boy from my neighborhood. Dzhokhar had recently graduated from Cambridge, Rindge and Latin, a school that represents what I love most about Cambridge, where children of professors and children of immigrants and children who were refugees from conflicts such as Chechnya intermingled and grew up together to hopefully become the citizens that this country needs to be more aware of the world around them. When he was found that evening (after the city’s eyes were finally allowed back on the street), I was wishing they had found him dead. I did not seek vengeance but I did not want to confront the why? Why had a boy from my neighborhood committed such violence? Neither did I want to face the inevitable injustices committed in the name of “justice”, especially the displacement of his trial from Massachusetts, where we do not have the death penalty, to the federal jurisdiction where they do.
I was distressed to see the American flags amid the celebrations of Dzhokhar’s capture. It was not that I wanted to deny my fellow Bostonians their freedom to rejoice after such a wrenching week, but I did not understand the place of the flag when a fellow American, a neighboring resident of Cambridge, was the one who was responsible. The news has since taken more difficult turns, from conservative calls for Dzhokhar to be tried as an enemy combatant to even progressive consensus that he should be denied his Miranda rights. The media searches for explanations back in Chechnya to what motivated these Cambridge brothers to commit their crimes. I too am interested in their Chechen background. In high school I took a class called “Children in War” and our final project was to write a diary from the perspective of one of the children we had read about. This was the mid-1990s and I wrote about Chechnya.
Yet fast-forwarding to April 2013, I could not be anywhere other than Cambridge. I could not point my finger at Chechnya, because as my grandmother always tells me, that means three fingers are pointing back at me. I am not blaming Cambridge or Boston or anybody who knew these brothers for their horrific acts. As Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote, “Terror never paves the way to justice, but leads down the shortest path to hell.” I cannot put the explanation down to extremism when Tamerlan and Dzhokhar spent most of the last decade amid the diversity that is Cambridge, nor can I explain why I am infinitely more haunted by the bombings in Boston than by the daily atrocities carried out in Syria, not to mention American terrorism in the drone attacks that kill countless (literally) civilians. As I grieve for the victims I want to feel fury at the perpetrators, but that almost feels like turning the anger against myself and my own neighborhood where the Tsarnaev brothers and I walked down the same streets. For me, and perhaps for others who think of Cambridge as home, justice can never be done when the injustice goes beyond the killings and collides with our conscience because it was committed by our neighbors against our neighbors. As I grieve for the real victims of Boston’s tragedy, I also grieve for my myself and my fellow Bostonians, and amid my confusion I grieve for the perpetrators because they too were part of my beloved Boston.
Julia Tierney is a first year doctoral student in City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley where her focus is on international development and comparative urbanism, with a focus on Brazil and Lebanon. She graduated with a Masters in City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.