At 2:50 PM on Monday, April 15, I was sitting in my Cambridge office, separated from the finish line of the Boston Marathon by 2.5 miles of parks, city streets, and the iconic Charles River. Around 3:00 PM, I started receiving what would soon become a flood of messages—texts, emails, and Facebook chats, from friends, family members, and high-school classmates: “Are you ok?” “Are you safe?” “You’re not at the marathon, are you?”
This is how I learned what else happened at 2:50 PM. This is how I learned that mere miles away, two home-made bombs had detonated, killing three people and wounding 183 more. And this is what led me to pace the halls of my building, knocking on every door; to contact, in any way possible, friends I knew were there, at that finish line; to make sure that these people—my people—were safe.
In times of distress and unease—of apparent attack—it’s easy to think in us-vs-them terms: to care only about our people, our city, our country.
But if these attacks were perpetrated against any “us,” it was the “us” of humankind. The official list of marathon participants includes more than 23,000 athletes: males and females ranging in age from 18 to 83; runners, handcyclists, and wheelchair operators; citizens of 96 different countries and 6 of 7 continents (only Antarctica—which is not home to any permanent human residents—was not represented). They were us. And they were diverse.
The bombs exploded at a site celebrating this magnificent diversity—along the home stretch of the Marathon, a section of Boylston Street lined with the flags of each participant’s native country. This diversity was also displayed by the injured, and the dead—an 8-year-old boy, a 29-year-old restaurant manager, a 23-year-old Chinese graduate student.
This was, and is, a tragedy. There is no denying it.
But in the midst of this tragedy, there also was—and is—an unmistakable beauty.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosions—even as debris continued to fly through the air—countless people ran not away from the blasts, but towards them. These people had no way of knowing whether or not there would be more explosions, no way of knowing whether or not they were putting their own lives in danger; they simply saw others in need and immediately rushed to help. At the same time, more people—many of them marathoners who had just completed a draining 26.2 mile test of endurance—began to rush en masse to nearby Massachusetts General Hospital, seeking to give their own blood for the hundreds of wounded that would soon follow. In fact, so many people showed up that the hospital was forced, multiple times, to turn away would-be donors; there were simply too many people trying to help.
These overwhelming displays of helping—of selflessness and what psychologists call “prosocial behavior”—are beautiful in and of themselves. But they are even more beautiful because they transcend us-vs-them ways of thinking. These actions were not reserved for members of one group, one city, or one country; they were enacted without preference or prejudice, directed at victims of every color, creed, age, and gender. And they are still more beautiful because of their immediacy. These actions were not the result of carefully considered decisions, of weighing the pros and cons of each possible behavior; they were virtually instantaneous, seemingly born of a raw, instinctive urge to help those in need. In the face of overwhelming tragedy, people sought to help the “us” of humankind—immediately, prodigiously, and with little regard for their own safety.