Big athletic events are a perfect venue for terrorists. The world is already watching. The journalists are already there, microphones ready. That’s why, in 1972, Palestinian terrorists targeted Israeli athletes at the Olympics in Munich. That’s why in 1996, an antiabortion crusader set off a pipe bomb at the Atlanta Olympics. And in 2002, Basque separatists targeted a semifinals soccer match in Spain.
Nonetheless, yesterday’s attack on the Boston Marathon had a surreal feeling. It was odd to get texts from Afghanistan and Kenya, asking if I was OK in Boston. It reminded me of the aftermath of the first terrorist attack I ever covered: the 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi. Three years before Sept. 11 — before most Americans had ever heard of Osama bin Laden — I ran down the middle of what was supposed to be one of Nairobi’s busiest streets. I remember the stillness of it. The silence. The charred-out bus. My mentor, Ray Bonner, an investigative reporter at The New York Times, put his hands up to say “slow down.” Cops with machine guns were everywhere. Sudden movements made them nervous.
Yesterday, I saw that same fear on the faces of cops in Boston. The police tape cordoned off what may be the largest crime scene in the city’s history.
My friend Wairimu Mwaura, a Kenyan transplant to Boston, remembers the Nairobi attack. Her father’s office was on that street. Yesterday, Wairimu planted herself at the Marathon finish line in her neon pink lawn chair to cheer the Kenyan runners. She had never seen the Boston Marathon before.
When the first explosion went off, she thought the stands had collapsed. Then she saw smoke. Then a woman’s leg in shreds.
“We didn’t know if another bomb would go off behind us or in front of us,” she said. “We just tore down the barriers and ran.”
They took refuge at a bank in the Financial District. It was bizarre. Business carried on as usual.
After that, it was impossible to tell if the somber battalion of runners — wrapped in tinfoil cloaks — had twisted faces because they had just run 26 miles, or because they had seen someone die.
Marathoners huddled in a Nieman Marcus store. They sprawled on the floor, their backs near a Molton Brown body wash display.
A saleswoman served them tea and asked them in a strangely pleasant voice to stay centrally located: “The FBI is coming to check the building.”
A sports bar near the Marriott Hotel was evacuated. People walked off with glasses of beer. One runner hobbled away, stuffing a burger into his mouth.
City Councilor Tito Jackson came to survey the scene. Police warned him to leave the area. Another suspicious device had just been found.
“It’s a sad day in Boston,” Jackson said.
At Coda, a restaurant that advertised “Marathon Monday,” Bill Morgan, 54, of North Carolina, sat with his wife, daughter, and his daughter’s friend. Outside, a line of ambulances stretched as far as the eye could see.
Morgan had been showering after the race in his room at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel when the explosion shook the building. A voice over the hotel’s PA system asked them to evacuate using the stairs. It sounded tearful and scared. The Morgans weren’t sure where they would sleep.
But they were safe. And they were together. That’s what mattered. They paused their dinner to listen to President Obama vow to find out who did this. But one thing Obama didn’t promise was to make sure this never happens again.
Because it’s impossible.
“As much security as there was,” Morgan said. “I don’t think it’s preventable.”
We can be vigilant. We can be smart. But we can’t bring the risk of a terrorist attack down to zero. We’d have to give up too much to do that. We’d have to become a police state. And even that would not be enough. If we are willing to die in wars to protect our freedom, we must be willing to die right here in Boston. It was surreal to see half the city conducting business as usual. But there was something inspiring and stubborn about it. Tomorrow, this city is going to get up and live its life. We are not going to let anyone stop us.