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Remember When The Marathon Was Just A Race?

Social critic Wendy Kaminer says, for better or worse, the Boston Marathon is no longer an athletic event -- it's an icon. In this photo, a patron enters the Forum restaurant, site of one of two bomb blasts during the 2013 Marathon, while passing a "Boston Strong" sticker adhered to a tree trunk at a makeshift memorial on Boylston Street. Wednesday, April 16, 2014 in Boston. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Social critic Wendy Kaminer says, for better or worse, the Boston Marathon is no longer an athletic event -- it's an icon. In this photo, a patron enters the Forum restaurant, site of one of two bomb blasts during the 2013 Marathon, while passing a "Boston Strong" sticker adhered to a tree trunk at a makeshift memorial on Boylston Street. Wednesday, April 16, 2014 in Boston. (Charles Krupa/AP)
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I miss the Boston Marathon. I miss riding my bike to the finish line to join a friendly, manageable crowd, three or four people deep, cheering the runners across. Of course, those days have long been gone. Like other formerly low-key, local celebrations, the marathon became a major media event, drawing enormous crowds, the usual hyperbole, and then, the deadly attention of terrorists.

Now the marathon is no longer a race. It’s an icon — an object of worship. Now praising its virtues and the presumed bravery, compassion and unity of every single actual or honorary Bostonian is less a choice than a civic obligation. We’ve fetishized the marathon.

I’m not denigrating collective grief, collective mourning or collective tributes to the resilience of grievously wounded survivors and the lifesaving courage and skill of first responders. But I bridle when I see people, politicians and the press marching in lockstep (even with the best intentions). I question the reflexive, self-congratulatory fervor of our new mantra: “Boston Strong,” Boston brags.

Now praising its virtues and the presumed bravery, compassion and unity of every single actual or honorary Bostonian is less a choice than a civic obligation.

Jingoism is the dark side of our communal response to the bombings. “BPD, BPD,” a horde of 20-somethings chanted, running down Commonwealth Avenue last year, cheering the police after the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. “USA, USA,” they may as well have boasted, or, “We’re number one,” as if the bombing, lockdown and bloody end of a manhunt were the equivalent of a Super Bowl win.

Sometimes it was hard to distinguish communal grief from ghoulishness. For days after the bombing, crowds pressed against barriers on Boylston Street, cellphones on high, documenting their vicarious participation in tragedy. What do they expect to see?, I wondered, watching people stare at an empty street, until I realized they were seeing themselves, and being seen by others.

Of course, these days, we’re all being seen by law enforcement. On Marathon Day, Back Bay was a collection of checkpoints, with helicopters hovering overheard. We’re all under increased surveillance. Over 100 new cameras have been installed in Boston along the marathon route, understandably. But while I suppose they could be temporary, I fear they’re permanent fixtures that will monitor our behavior forever.

So much for the bravado we heard in the wake of last year’s bombing. "(N)obody is going to dictate our freedom," renown political analyst David Ortiz declared, (apparently oblivious to the NSA). “We won't be giving up any civil liberties to keep ourselves safe because of this," Dennis Lehane assured us. That could prove true in fiction, but in fact many if not most of us smile for the cameras and submit to the searches, surrendering whatever privacy is left to us with barely a peep of protest. Most people probably welcomed the friendly but intense security on Marathon Day, instead of lamenting its apparent necessity and tolerating it grudgingly. We‘re accustomed to surrendering civil liberties in the hope of staying safe, as anyone who’s been awake since 9/11 should know.

Yes, there’s bravery, not just bravado, in the multitude of runners, organizers, spectators and officials who successfully reclaimed the race. Relatively few seemed likely to have known no fear, but that only made their participation more, not less, courageous. Courage isn’t fearlessness; it’s action in the face of fear.

while there’s strength in numbers, there’s also weakness, when groups encourage or demand groupthink, of which 'Boston Strong' seems emblematic.

Turning out to run, watch or staff the race, people took solace in each other. But while there’s strength in numbers, there’s also weakness, when groups encourage or demand groupthink, of which "Boston Strong" seems emblematic.

“Boston Grateful,” declared the banner on Boylston Street’s Lenox Hotel, after the recent Back Bay fire that killed Lt. Edward Walsh and Firefighter Michael Kennedy. Yes, I thought, Boston Grateful. Not yet a slogan, it captures a common, heartfelt and humble sentiment. I doubt we’ll see it on mugs, T-shirts or other mass-marketed merchandise. It is, I imagine, an ephemeral expression of gratitude, unlikely to devolve into a cliché, a boast or a requisite declaration of belonging and belief. It means so much more when we say it so much less.


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Wendy Kaminer Cognoscenti contributor
Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and social critic, writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion, and popular culture and is currently a correspondent at The Atlantic. Her latest book is "Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity and the ACLU."

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